For a long time, I’ve been curious about Oregon’s Owyhee Reservoir. On the map, it looks like the long winding, skinny shape typical of many reservoirs in the west. Creeks and inlets fan out of the edges like dozens of centipede arms and the lake itself is situated in the middle of an extremely remote and rugged desert on the border of Oregon and Idaho. Created by a dam on the Owyhee River, this lake is some 50 odd miles long, and ranges in width. The only services here are a few campgrounds with boat ramps, and a road that ends within the first few miles of the lake. The vast majority of the lake is accessible only by boat, or… (grin, wink) swimming, of course.
A quick glance at the calendar revealed my birthday was on a Thursday this year, so Dan and I decided to make it a four day weekend and finally check out this off-the-beaten path gem of a body of water. Well, ostensibly the trip was about rockhounding, the obscure hobby of collecting only-occasionally-valuable stones while adventuring in out of the way places no one visits for any other reason. If you’re a person who doesn’t like other people, this hobby is for you. The Owyhee hosts some very interesting spots to find petrified wood, agates, picture jasper and the ever-sought-after “thundereggs”. But in my heart, I just wanted to see what this lake was really all about, go for a swim and see what it might take to swim in it more.
I didn’t really know what to expect. Compulsive google searching amounted to mostly breathtaking photos of the Owyhee river, (a worthy white water undertaking), and someone’s blog post about trying to canoe at the south end of the reservoir, only to arrive at a mud shlogged boat ramp. I figured, worst case scenario, it’d be a non-fun swim, but at least I’d know.
We arrived in the area Thursday evening after a leisurely drive across Oregon, involving various stops that can only be classified as “whatevering”, the even-more obscure hobby of driving around stopping wherever you feel like to do whatever you want. At least for us, whatevering has been at an all-time low since the pandemic began and we are somewhat out of practice. We passed through the small town of Vale and drove through an agricultural area, irrigation canals feeding row after row of sprouting crops. Finally, our road met up with the Owyhee river, flowing fast and shallow and I wondered if I could swim there, if it’d be like the Deschutes, or the Clackamas, deeper sections interspersed with shallow rapids.
We found a place to camp, just off the road, on a small plateau across from the river. No sooner had we arrived than I was donning my swimsuit, cap and goggles, trotting down to the river in my flip flops, dog and boyfriend in tow. The water was a now-familiar 51 degrees and felt refreshing after the long day of whatevering in the 80+ degree heat. I set an expectation of no expectation and passed the time swimming upstream and mostly floating downstream, over and over again, taking in the views of the colorful, solid rock lining the narrow river.
The next morning, we packed up and followed the road along the river, past the dam and alongside the lake. “Pull over!” I shouted at Dan, unable to contain myself. We got out and walked over to the edge of the canyon to look down at the water stretching out and beyond our view. There was water, and plenty of it—not a squishy mud marsh in sight. A single person stood fishing aways away, nearer to the dam. We stood for awhile, not saying anything, enjoying the utter silence, then got back in the car, my body feeling the restless, agitated excitement I get when I really want to swim.
There are several campgrounds available at this part of the lake, near the dam. There is one more at Leslie Gulch, at the south end of the lake, but that requires access from an entirely different direction. The campgrounds had RVs in them and boat ramps, explaining why the road we were on was paved and so well maintained. It comes to an end, however, at Indian Creek campground, with an additional almost 50 miles left to explore by water. We stopped there and Dan mumbled he was going to brew himself a cup of coffee while I frantically applied sunscreen and threw on my swim gear. I just couldn’t wait to get in. Don’t laugh at me for getting so excited about swimming, but at this point my heart was racing and it was harder to think clearly to make sure I had my goggles, ear plugs etc. I was as eager as Maya, our golden retriever, whose tail was thwapping against the side of the car, equally beside herself to start exploring. Together we strode down a hill to the waters edge, where I pointed out there was a nice picnic table next to a spectacular tree where Dan could make coffee, if he wanted.
Without further ado, I waded into the water, taking note of how cool, but gentle it felt. This was not the 50 degree water I’ve grown used to over the winter; this water was much more hospitable. Breaking into a grin, I took off, a few breast-strokes at first, then backstroke, looking back at Dan who was videoing (by request) this little moment I was having, meeting the lake for the first time. It was the beginning of the swim, but it felt like the completion of an aspiration. I’ve talked about going to this lake to swim for years now and I was finally there. I swam and floated, swam and floated, stopping occasionally to remove my goggles and admire the canyon walls, those enormous wrinkles in the earth, carved by the gentle water itself over millions of years.
Before the pandemic, I would’ve had some sort of mileage or duration goal for a swim like this, actually for any and every swim. But I’ve basically cut that sh*t out. Of course I still have a general idea of what I’m trying to do with the amount I swim each week, but not every swim needs to be about that. Some swims need to just be about “lake bagging” in its true form, that is, going to a lake and getting in to swim around for awhile. So I swam around and then I got out. Not sure how far, not sure how long, but it was a really great swim. I left myself wanting to come back for more, which is a great mindset to be in. I’d like to try it in the fall and see how the water level is then and I’d like to check out the put-in at Leslie Gulch, maybe next spring. Either way, I’ll be back, Lake Owyhee!
For a long time, I’ve wondered what it would be like to swim in the snow. A few weeks ago, Gillian and I each drove our well-equipped vehicles through non-ideal conditions to reach the lake for our first ever snow swim. It was pretty magical seeing the bright-white, snow covered cliffs reaching down into the blue, liquid water. Today, we did it again, but there was a lot more snow and it was much, much colder.
An Adventurous Drive
Getting to the lake was non-trivial and an adventure in-and-of itself. I drove an AWD with studded tires (common in Central Oregon), which handles amazingly well, but I am also amazingly prone to anxiety about going down hills when it is slick, regardless of the means of travel. Skis, snowshoes, boots, wheels etc., downhill in any of them makes me nervous. As I drove down the steep road into the canyon, my mouth grew dry, my stomach did all sorts of nervous leaps and jumps and my muscles felt the familiar sensation of shaky, anxiety-fatigue. I gripped the steering wheel and tried to avoid looking out over the cliff to the lake below. As I crept along at a ridiculous, snail’s pace, I quickly snapped the following photo from the car. I’m not sure why I felt it was ok to stop in the middle of the road for several seconds to snap a picture, but there was virtually no one else on the road and it helped me get my mind off my fear for a second.
As you can see, the road is completely plowed. The grade is rather steep, but my car had zero problems, not even the tinniest skid, yet I felt overwhelmingly nervous. I noticed that if I just looked at the road directly in front of me, the anxiety went way down, as my mind was focused on the present, not on the low statistical probability of flying off the cliff.
Gillian and I stood around talking for an uncharacteristically long time. Maybe it was because we hadn’t seen each other in awhile, or maybe we were both just feeling a little intimidated by the foot of snow on the ground, or the 18°F air temp, or all of that coupled with the 46°F water. In any case, when I finally got it together to pull off my parka, sweat pants, thick socks, snow boots, and changing robe, I was already starting to feel cold. I shoved my feet into my flip flops and trudged through the deep snow between the picnic table and water’s edge, only to slip and fall directly on my bottom, submerging most of my body into the (literally) freezing cold snow. Gillian already had her ear plugs in and did not hear my pathetic yelp or witness my cursing and swearing as I hauled my already confused and insulted body toward the water’s edge and dumped it in. There was a sense that if I could just make it to the water, I’d be warmer, as if it were some sort of geothermal hot springs. After all, 46° is a lot warmer than 18°. That turned out to be only partially true. The water felt colder going in and the air felt colder getting out. It was the coldest of both worlds.
Once I started to swim, and after the requisite gasping had subsided, I started to feel pretty good. Everything felt happy and familiar as my skin cooled down and adjusted to the water. We had determined a course that would maximize our views of the lake, particularly the spectacular view looking north-to-south down the river canyon. After all, that was really why we were there. You just can’t get a view like that anywhere or anytime other than in 18° air right after a big snowstorm in the middle of the lake. Also, the view looks better when you are submerged in the water itself, rather than sitting on top of it in a boat. It’s more like you are together with it that way. Life is too short and there’s no sense in being separate from your experience of it.
Together we admired the view and continued on our way, swimming in tandem down the canyon, looking up every so often to admire the cliffs, the snow and the water. We passed a large flock of ducks, bobbing around in the placid water. Before I knew it, we had reached the far end of the floating dock, near the boat ramp. We had agreed to each tell each other one cold symptom at that point, to avoid our usual habit of saying, “how ya doing?” and “great!”, which is all too easy to automate. Since there were no boats, we decided to swim to a buoy south of our starting point. We ordinarily don’t swim that far from our starting point, due to boat concerns, but the buoy looked like it was “right there”. It took me 50 stroke cycles to get there and I started to feel just a hint of that “what if something happens” type anxiety. I remembered what I had learned driving down the canyon and focused just on the feelings in my body and the water and my stroke.
I was ecstatic to find that I still know how to swim and my arms still felt strong, despite only 1-2 cold swims per week all winter. I felt pretty great as we swam the length of the floating dock and then swam around some more, back out toward the middle of the lake to get one last good view before heading in toward the snow-covered picnic table.
The Part I Didn’t Like
I started taking my suit off in the water, knowing the air would feel really cold. I was right… as I exited to water, my fingers and toes started feeling discernibly colder almost immediately. I waded through the snow in my flip flops and attempted to shove my feet into my now-frozen snow boots. The boots were stiff and rigid from the cold and I had to shove hard to get my foot to go in. While I was doing that I threw my changing robe on and tried to gather the remaining items in my arms, mumbling to Gillian I’d see her back at the trucks. She nodded and I took off, clumsily trying to contain my bag, my parka and flip flops. As I strode toward the parking area, any sensation I might have had in my fingers and toes shrank, leaving a creepy nothingness in its wake. This non-sensation I did not like at all. I started to move faster, breaking into a slight jog, which caused me to lose a flip flop on the trail. With a glance back at it, I left it for dead and kept running for the parking lot.
I yanked the car door open, thankful I had wisely chosen not to lock it and literally threw myself into the back passenger seat. By now, I felt like there was a huge ball of ice between my first and second toe. I looked at it, but there was nothing there, just the pale whiteness of uncirculated skin. I managed to dry my feet and legs with a towel and the car was considerably warmer than the outdoors. My fingers gained usefulness and I got the rest of the way changed into my warm clothes. I couldn’t bear the thought of getting out of the car to march through the snow in my slippers around to the driver’s seat to turn on the engine, so I contorted myself over the center console and under the steering wheel where I shoved the key in and cranked the heat to full blast. This all took eight minutes, my usual time to change and turn the heat on. At ten minutes, I took my mouth temperature as I always do ten minutes after exiting the water. It was refreshingly close to my usual reading. I poured myself a cup of hot tea to help me wait out the shivers and tried not to think about how much my fingers hurt now that I apparently had them again.
Feeling Good Again
The rest of it went just like it usually does. Upon feeling somewhat warm again, I felt fantastic and euphoric, hopeful and thankful for everything. My tea tasted great. I had coffee after tea and that tasted great as well. My warm clothes felt so cozy and nice and the snow was beautiful. Gillian and I sat in our respective cars, parked next to each other, but chatting through the open windows, pandemic style. In the end, it was just a swim, but for me, everything about this is “the stuff”. To top it all off, Gillian hopped out of her truck and came around to my door, clutching my lost flip-flop. I had been planning to go back and collect it from the trail, but couldn’t manage to negotiate my feet out of their warm little slipper-dens and put them back into the harsh world of cold, wet boots. But there it was, thanks to her, ready to join its companion in my equipment bag and look forward to the next adventure swim.
The water temperature is 4°C, the air -2° and she is swimming, bare skin and a thin nylon swimsuit tearing through the water, on target to complete her first Ice Mile. Her crew cheers from the sidelines, holding a large sign indicating the lap number. Lap 1, then lap 2, stay focused, keep going, 3, 4. She is watching her mind, watching her body, staying focused and looking for signs of something going wrong. Just like in training, all the familiar sensations are there and she is watching them, noting them carefully. The crew holds up the sign for laps 5, 6… 7. From their positions of warmth and clarity, she is swimming and swimming strong, but they can’t see inside her mind to note that the internal checking and monitoring is fading away. The sign is no longer a thing that should even be looked for. For now, it’s just swimming on instinct alone, only responding to the immediate environment around her. The crew holds up lap 8, but she swims on without looking. And sometime after that a surge of adrenaline brings a brief moment of lucidity. Dizziness. And it’s all horribly wrong. A single thought: this is getting scary. She pulls her head out of the water and finds herself yelling, “I’m done!” Still the crew cheers on, “You’re almost there! You’re almost there! Keep swimming! Keep swimming!”
Seconds turn into minutes and minutes turn into more minutes. Her body swims to the finish line, but she herself is absent from her own victory. Later they will say she is more like a creature than a human, emerging from the water to be loaded into an ambulance she has on standby. She regains consciousness without suffering any heart arrhythmias or blood pressure issues, but her core temperature dropped to 90°F during the course of the swim.
My last post, which you can read here focused on scientific evidence for how humans respond to repeated (3-12 sessions) cold exposure. This is part two of the series and focuses more specifically on how mental performance and conscious awareness are affected by prolonged exposure to cold water. In contrast to the last post, this one is based mostly on anecdotes (or stories) from people in our community who have varying degrees of experience swimming in cold water.
I wanted to know if swimmers who have swum while in altered states or lost consciousness have the subjective experience of going from total awareness to suddenly waking up in an ambulance, or if they remember the quality of their awareness gradually changing as things get progressively worse. Are there warning signs that a swimmer can keep track of? What should the crew look for to prevent these scenarios?
Katie Blair, North Channel
In her recently published memoir, Katie Blair describes swimming in the North Channel, the strait between Ireland and Scotland. The cold water (59°F for her swim) coupled with jellyfish and wicked currents can have a swimmer swimming in place for hours, making this a very challenging swim.
For Katie, after the first several hours, all was going as expected and even by six hours, she reported feeling cold, but lucid and determined to make it to Scotland. The first thing she remembered indicating her mind was affected is “mild disorientation, much like having a few too many drinks.” She wrote, “It is not entirely unpleasant, as the thoughts about the cold seem to fade away into tired amusement over one’s misery.” This very first symptom might be difficult for a crew to observe, since swimmers typically take very short breaks to feed and (especially when they are cold) often do not lolly gag to casually converse. And for a swimmer, going from feeling cold and miserable to somewhat tipsy and amused probably doesn’t feel particularly unwelcome in the moment.
However, sometime in the course of several hours, things got more desperate and there were some more outward signs of a decline. For instance, she writes, “I recall trying to swim up on the big body of a lion mane jellyfish to warm up, but its slimy body slid out from underneath me, its tentacles leaving paper cuts on my arms and legs”.
At this time she reports that her crew was increasingly concerned, but decided to let her continue, knowing how important the swim was to her. More time passed while the crew changed the boat position to try to shelter her from the wind. During a feed, she unknowingly dunked her feed cup in the water, exchanging the contents for channel water and yelled at her crew, demanding to know why they would put salt in her drink. After inhaling water repeatedly and a sudden, brief moment of lucidity, not unlike the one the swimmer experienced in the opening paragraph of this post, it occurred to her she was going to die if she didn’t get warm. Disoriented and confused, she simply stopped swimming and climbed onto the boat ladder extended by the crew.
These memories are often painful for swimmers to recount, but the importance of them is not to be underestimated. One take away for me is that although Katie has memories of these warning signs, she was not able to interpret them as warning signs until the very end. I noticed a similar pattern in other swimmers I talked to and to understand why, we need to take a brief trip into the world of cognitive psychology.
Executive Functioning and Metacognition
When I was getting my doctoral degree in Psychology, I worked in the lab of Michael Posner, a well-known cognitive scientist. His work has contributed much to what we know about the brain’s attention systems. When I worked in his lab, I was studying the brain system responsible for “executive attention”, which allows for self-regulation, inhibitory control, error detection, conflict resolution and more. This is the system that is activated if you encounter a situation you can’t “autopilot” through and need to decide how to respond, or in a situation where the needed response is something other than your automatic response. This capability is not fully developed until adulthood and the abilities associated with it are often seen as unique to the mental capabilities of humans compared with other animals.
Using executive attention, we can think about what we are thinking about, notice if our minds are wandering off track, or be aware if we are becoming confused or disoriented. Referred to by researchers (Fernandez-Duque, Baird and Posner, 2000) as metacognitive regulation, this set of processes seems fundamental to being able to staying lucid and managing behavior safely in cold water.
So, what happens to executive attention, metacognition and other higher order brain functions when you become hypothermic?
In 1993, Giesbrecht, Arnett, Psych, Vela and Bristow studied the mental performance of six men before they were immersed in 8°C (47°F) water, immediately after immersion and after their core temperatures had cooled to 33-34.8°C (91.4-94.6°F). It took participants 55-80 minutes of immersion to reach these temperatures. They found that performance on simple tasks (auditory attention, visual recognition and forward digit span) was not impaired after cooling, whereas there was a significant decrement in performance for the two more complex tasks (Stroop and backward digit span). For instance, in a task where the experimenter read a series of digits and the participants had to repeat them out loud, there was no change in performance. However, when participants were asked to repeat a string of digits backwards they were significantly worse after being chilled than before.
The results of the Stroop test (a common measure of executive attention) were very interesting, but a good discussion is beyond the scope of this post. The short version is that it seems executive attention and other complex mental tasks such as reading and working memory may be substantially impaired by hypothermia. In the words of Katie Blair, “Hypothermia takes your mind, and with it, any willpower or plan you may have had.”
Another important thing to understand is that although they sometimes overlap, loss of memory and loss of consciousness are not the same thing. Altered states such as confusion, disorientation or stupor can impair autobiographical memory, but may allow a person to continue to be somewhat responsive to their environment. Think of a person who is intoxicated and interacting with others, but doesn’t remember what happened the next day. They weren’t unconscious, but the functioning of their brain was impaired to the point where new memories weren’t able to form. Swimmers may not be able to remember responding to simple questions, eating, drinking or swimming if they are in an altered state, but not actually unconscious. Catching swimmers when they are in a disoriented state, but not actually unconscious may be the key to preventing people from swimming into more dangerous situations where their heart may be affected.
I decided to talk to more swimmers about their experiences. Some swimmers, Amy Gubser, Evan Morrison and Caroline Block reported never experiencing any symptoms of mental confusion or anything odd happening psychologically. They each mentioned they take a very cautious approach and speculated that maybe they just haven’t ever been cold enough (despite the fact that all three have completed very long, cold swims by most people’s standards).
One swimmer, Lisa Amorao, reported experiences like feeling “can’t walk up the stairs drunk” or pleasant euphoria and wanting to stay in the water longer, but that over her nine years of experience, she has learned to watch for these signs and get out when she starts to experience them. This is a fantastic use of metacognition and learning from experience. Because she knows what to look for, she can keep herself more safe than she could before these years of experience, whereas a new swimmer may misinterpret this positive feeling as a signal to stay in longer.
Finally, other swimmers recalled having been told by others that they were acting strange or confused, but don’t themselves recall being confused.
Amy Gubser & Lynton Mortensen, Dál Riata Channel
A different route between Ireland and Scotland, this channel has only been successfully swum by two people and is on the MSF list of “Toughest Thirteen” swims. While the North Channel ranges in temperature from low to high 50s, the Dál Riata was just 47°F the day two very experienced cold swimmers, Amy and Lynton, attempted it in 2019 as a tandem swim.
Lynton reported he slept just two hours the night before the swim and had just completed a swim around Jersey Island, which took 11.5 hours at a temperature of 12C. We know that exertional fatigue and lack of sleep are factors that can make it much more difficult to defend one’s core temperature (Castellani et al., 2010), so no doubt that played a role in what happened.
Amy, a registered nurse who works with pediatric cardiac patients, reported that around four hours into the swim, she noticed Lynton slurring his words and swimming slower than normal. They continued on for hours, while both Amy and crew kept an eye on how Lynton was doing. Their accounts are pretty similar in terms of the conversations they remember, except Lynton said that he doesn’t recall feeling confused or disoriented, while Amy said he was extremely confused.
“I don’t recall dizziness, confusion or disorientation – I’m sure that is how I may have appeared to Amy & the crew – I do recall just feeling terribly cold from when we first hit the water – I was clear in my head of where we were finishing and recall seeing the shore we were swimming to – I recall the crew saying at the last few feeds that unless I picked up the pace they would pull me out and I recall telling them I did not want to slow Amy down – I also recall Amy saying to me ‘Lynton do you want to get out or you should get out’, to which I recall replying a couple of times – “yeah I’m going to get out over there” pointing to the finish of the swim.”
After around 10 hours, Amy remembers yelling at him that he had to get out. They both remember her saying, “you have to think of your family, it’s just a swim”. Lynton remembered still underestimating the danger he was in after getting onto the boat. He tried to convince Amy and crew he would be ok rewarming on the boat while Amy finished the swim. But thankfully, the Infinity Channel Swimming crew made the wise decision to end the swim.
In the absence of metagcognition, it seems there would be no way to “see” your own mind and be able to detect that your mind is in a confused state. It’s almost like you need other people to notice that you are confused, because your internal noticer is no longer active.
Joe and John Zemaitis, Monterey Bay
Two brothers, Joe and John attempted Monterey Bay (another of the MSF toughest thirteen) as a tandem swim. Along with crew member Amy Gubser, they each emailed with me about their experiences with Joe’s loss of consciousness and John’s finish. Since they’re not published elsewhere (and they were so interesting to read), I decide to include both Joe and John’s accounts in their entirety. Here’s Joe’s:
“I had heard before of swimmers who got pulled from the water semi-conscious or unconscious suffering from hypothermia and having no memory of the final hours they were swimming. It didn’t seem like that was even possible. How could someone swim for 4-6 hours and have no memory of it? I didn’t make sense until it happened to me, and it still doesn’t make sense!
My brother John and I started our tandem solo 25 mile Monterey Bay swim in June 2019 at sunset, attempting to take advantage of calm winds overnight and finishing before the afternoon winds came. We expected water temps in the mid-50’s for a swim for 14 hours +/- an hour.
It was a challenging swim from the beginning. We had switched up our feeding plan to feed more often, but take less per feed. A big mistake in retrospect. It was difficult getting solid foods down in the cold and the chop. It was a long night, but at last we started getting some light. I don’t remember much of anything about swimming in light. Given that I got pulled from the water around noon it meant I swam for around six hours with virtually no memory. I had two “flash bulb” memories of swimming during the day. Once when John (my brother and tandem solo swim partner) was trying to help me with a feed and I was confused because I didn’t recognize what I was drinking (turns out it was warm broth, but at the time I didn’t know what it was). The second was when Amy Gubser had been swimming in the water with us as a support swimmer and I didn’t know who she was or why she was there. I knew there should be one other person in the water (John) but didn’t know who the other person was swimming with us and why she was there (even though Amy and I are friends and I absolutely should have recognized her!).
The next memory was waking up in a hospital room with no memory of the mile or so on the boat to shore or the ambulance ride to the hospital. When I woke up I immediately knew who I was, and what I was doing. My first question to the doctor was “did I finish” when he said “no” I remember thinking “Dammit, now I have to start over from the beginning.” My hospital stay was fortunately quite short…just a few hours and some warm IV’s and passing a couple EKG’s and I was released. So it could have been a lot worse. Testament to having a great crew watching out for you!
The scariest thing is that at no point did I ever feel like I was in any danger. I don’t recall feeling exceptionally cold during the parts of the swim I can remember, certainly no more cold than other swims. There was never a point in the swim where I recognized the danger and thought about getting out. That thought never even occurred to me. Mentally I was too far gone to be able to realize the trouble I was in and that I should get out of the water. By this point my longest swim was 18 hours and I had completed an Ice Mile so I wasn’t a stranger to cold water or long swimming. There wasn’t anything about this particular set of circumstances that would set off the alarm bells.
I thought that some of the lost memories I had would come back later, they never did. The main thing I learned is that I should have some signals with support crew. Questions like “how many fingers am I holding up”. I am positive I would have not been able to form a coherent answer. It would have been a clue to the crew that I was in need of extraction! It was frustrating because I was less than a mile from the finish when I was ultimately pulled out of the water and did indeed had to ‘start over from the beginning.’
The happy ending to the story is that I had my second attempt in October of 2020 and stayed strong and alert the whole time. I started at 3am to maximize the daylight hours and decided to take my chances with the afternoon winds. I got a good day and slayed the dragon.”
John weighed in as to what it was like for him, swimming alongside Joe, whose awareness was gradually sliding away:
“Looking back there are a few signs that Joe was struggling. The first one was he was having trouble keeping up with me and was dropping back, if anything I should be the one dropping back based on our training. I think this was around sunrise, but would need to check the observer log to see when our speed dropped off. The other big one was that he kept veering away from the boat. I think it was because the boat/mast (boat had a tall mast) was rocking (side to side) and it could look like the mast was coming at you, so I think deep down this was a survival instinct to move away from a perceived danger.
We do not talk much during our feeds/swim, so when Joe was not communicating I did not think much of it. When Joe was not answering specific questions from our crew on how he was doing it became concerning. But by then we were within sight of land, so it is a difficult decision at that point and we hoped he could just make it to shore. Like Joe said, I think it would be good for the crew to have some simple questions unrelated to how you feel, because the answer Joe was giving to ‘how are you doing’ question was ‘fine’ or ‘good’, something that is programmed into you to say.
Looking back I think the cause of Joe’s issues came down to the change we made in the amount of calories per feed. I don’t think he was getting the needed calories early on and later in the swim he was only taking small amount of the feeds and not getting much in his mouth.”
These insights are valuable because they provide suggestions for what crew members can do next time to minimize the possibility of pushing too far, while still giving credit to crew members for making the life saving decisions they did when they did. Since Joe was able to come back and complete the same swim, with no problems staying conscious, I wanted to see if I could better understand the role of experience in swimmers’ success and safety.
Paul Asmuth, Lac St. Jean
In his book, “Marathon Swimming, the Sport of the Soul”, professional swimmer, Paul Asmuth discussed his experience progressing into unconsciousness while swimming a famous race called, La Traversée Internationale Du Lac St. Jean. The race begins in a 60°F (15°C) river and progresses across the lake, which he reports is often 2-4°F warmer than the river
He first attempted the race in 1981, toward the beginning of his professional open water swimming career, without much experience swimming in cold water. In his description of his symptoms, he reported beginning to shiver after three hours, but that his brother John (serving as crew member) told him he looked good and was maintaining a good pace after five hours. By seven hours, he started losing his lead and wrote that his memory is “fuzzy” after that. He remembered around eight hours John speaking to him in a foreign language, which he thought was odd since his brother speaks only English. By nine hours he was pulled from the water, an effort that was difficult for crew members, due to his attempts to push the boat away from him so he could continue swimming. He was just 1,000 meters from the finish when they ended the swim. He made a full recovery in the hospital. He wrote that he learned he would have to train regularly in chilly water, not just the swimming pool, if he wanted to be capable of competing under these conditions.
In 1985, the race organizers had shifted to a staggering forty mile double crossing of the lake for the race. He participated, but had to stop after a few hours due to a shoulder problem. He swam the English Channel later that year, after training regularly in San Francisco’s Aquatic Park Cove. He set a new men’s record with a time of just over 8 hours and reports the water temperature was 60F and had no troubles with hypothermia or fuzzy consciousness. Already his training had allowed him to swim longer (and stay conscious) than his experience at Lac St. Jean four years prior.
In 1989, a full 9 years after his first one-way attempt, he attempted the Lac St. Jean double crossing again, this time with the benefit of training for years in cold showers, ice baths, cold lakes, rivers and oceans. This time, he not only completed the first crossing of the lake, but turned around and swam all the way back to complete the double crossing, winning the race with a new record of just over 17 hours in low 60s F water. He wrote, “When first starting my marathon swimming career I was a poor cold-water swimmer, and now I was one of the better competitors in frigid [low 60s] temperatures.” He did not report any troubles with staying conscious throughout the rest of his book.
Ned Denison, Santa Barbara Channel
If you haven’t seen the marathon swimming documentary, “Driven”, I recommend it. Near the beginning of the film, Ned Denison is interviewed about his experience swimming from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara, California. He swam well the entire swim, but encountered a sudden temperature drop while swimming over a trench that causes an upwelling of cold water. His crew could see that he was deteriorating, but knew that if they could get to shore, they’d have better access to emergency services on land than if they pulled Ned onto the boat, where they would have to navigate further to a place they could dock. He was in an altered state and does not remember swimming to the beach. Read Ned’s write-up of his experience here.
This swim was toward the beginning of his career and he has subsequently completed an extensive list of marathon swims (see https://longswims.com/p/ned-denison/). He now runs a cold-water training camp called “Cork Distance Week”, where people challenge themselves and push their limits in cold water. He also participated in an ice mile research study (Kenny, et al., 2016) where he and another swimmer completed a one mile swim in the pool (28.1C/82°F) and a one mile swim in a 3.9C/39°F lake. His core temperature was monitored by a small thermometer he had to swallow so it could take readings from deep in his body’s core.
He and the other swimmer were well matched in terms of body fat percentage and height, but their experiences with the ice mile that day were quite different. Even at the end of the swim, Ned’s temperature was still a cozy 36.8 C (98.2F), whereas the other swimmer’s temperature had dropped to 33.7C (92.7F) by the end of the swim. Both swimmers experienced a substantial after-drop in temperature, with Ned’s temperature at 33.2C (91.8F) and the other swimmer 31.3C (88.3F).
The authors of the study speculated that maybe Ned was able to defend his core temperature longer than the other swimmer due to his many years of experience swimming in cold water. Ned attributes his success to taking a very aggressive approach to the swim and going all out from the very beginning. A less experienced swimmer might not be as physiologically adapted, but also may be less willing to take a very aggressive approach, illustrating just one example of the difficulty in identifying exact mechanisms involved with improvement from experience.
Mary Bolger Hinds, who took the photo above, was also working safety on the shore that day. She said they had a support swimmer and kayakers watching swimmers in the water for signs like a change in body position (such as legs dangling below the body rather than flat on the surface), or a lot of side-to-side head motion that can often indicate hypothermia. During the rewarming after the swim, she assisted swimmers in quickly getting dressed and dry to help cope with “after-drop” as chilled blood recirculates from peripheral tissue back to the core. She noted the importance of movement and shivering, rather than sudden rewarming like a hot shower. During this time, she would ask swimmers to remember simple sentences to repeat them as a way of “checking speech is not slurred and making sure the memory is ok”. I was impressed with the measures they had in place, as it illustrates the importance of an experienced crew that is set up to appropriately monitor swimmers’ mental status.
Mental Skill Training
I talked with two ice swimmers who recently completed their first Ice Miles together, Jessi Harewicz and Roberta Cenedese. Neither swimmer reported any difficulty with mental focus or confusion during the official event or in training. Both swimmers have considerable experience they could draw from. Jessi has been swimming in cold water for over 5 years and also has completed some very long swims, including an impressive 30 hour swim across the Strait of Georgia, where it was a (chilly-for-me) 16-20°C/60-68°F. Roberta actually trains free divers and stunt performers in the film industry who have to do scenes in cold water. Because of her work she has developed a number of safety protocols, which they used during the Ice Mile event to ensure their crew would end the swim if any warning signs were present. For instance, they had a diver swimming along with them, wearing a thick wetsuit and pausing at the end of each lap to ask them a question to test mental awareness. Roberta says that when she is the safety swimmer, she will not hesitate to pull someone if they are not able to answer the question. She told me a story of a swimmer who insisted he was fine both during and after the swim, even though he wasn’t able to answer a predetermined question during the swim. This is another example of the lapse in capacity to self-monitor or accurately interpret warning signs.
Interestingly, when she is coaching, Roberta trains athletes in mindfulness and self-monitoring skills so that people are able to prevent mind-wandering while swimming or diving in cold water. “Mindfulness has proven to be more powerful than almost any other kind of training for success in that sport,” she told me.
I wondered if mindfulness training could really help someone stay conscious while at a lower core temperature. While there is evidence that mindfulness can be trained and that this training improves executive attention more generally (Posner et al., 2015), we know that the ability to monitor what your mind is doing and redirect it when it begins to wander is part of the set of functions that would likely be impaired (based on the findings of the Giesbrecht et al. study). If indeed the higher order brain functions are the first to go, wouldn’t that mean this would be the first skill you’d lose, no matter how good you were at it?
On the other hand, if you train your mind to notice internal signals and interpret them as noteworthy, this process could become more automatic and potentially less reliant on the executive attention system. Some people train themselves to be lucid dreamers so that they can recognize they are dreaming when they are asleep. Maybe a more mindful swimmer could improve metacognitive monitoring at colder core temperatures.
I decided to reach out to someone who might have some insight. Jessi had mentioned there was a Canadian researcher who was helping them with their ice mile training and had himself voluntarily been hypothermic many times. I asked for his name, only to find it was none other than Gordon Giesbrecht, the first author of the study referenced above. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, I googled him and learned that he teaches a “Cold Water Boot Camp” (where he goes by “professor popsicle”) that focuses on survival skills in cold water.
In an email I told him about how some swimmers had gone unconscious early in their careers and later been able to complete even more challenging (cold) swims while still maintaining consciousness. I asked him what he thought may have changed for these swimmers physiologically that would allow this to occur.
He noted that first we’d have to assume that swimmers like Paul, Ned and Joe definitely became unconscious due to hypothermia and not another factor like hypoglycemia. This is indeed a good point. Ned mentioned to me that he hadn’t consumed nearly enough nutrition during his Santa Barbara swim, and wrote that he was diagnosed with “starvation ketosis”, due to there being 15 hours between his last meal and the start of his 10.5 hour swim. Although he wrote his core temperature was “under 90°F”, it seems that ketosis could’ve made him more vulnerable to hypothermia. In addition, Joe and John Zemaitis both agreed that Joe’s trouble seemed related to the nutrition changes they made for that swim. Lack of calories, or in the extreme form, hypoglycemia, could have a detrimental effect on maintaining core temperature.
Giesbrecht also noted that you’d have to confirm that the swimmers did not gain body fat over the years they trained, as body fat is one of the most helpful factors in maintaining core temperature.
Finally, he acknowledged that something like the insulative acclimation involving vasoconstriction (see previous blog post) might be involved, but that we’d also need to consider that maybe very experienced swimmers are able to stay conscious at lower core temperatures. “This threshold for unconsciousness is variable between people and I assume in a single person based on several factors but I can’t define them very well, nor quantify them.” It occurred to me that Roberta may well be on to something. If swimmers can practice mindfulness while they practice cold swimming, perhaps they can stay conscious and lucid despite drops in core temperatures for longer.
Evan Morrison, Wintertime Angel Island
Nearing the opening to the Aquatic Park cove in San Francisco, I pulled my head out of the 52 degree water to look around. A boat horn blared into the February afternoon, a noise marathon swimmers associate with the end of an epic swim. But it wasn’t my swim that was ending or epic today. “Is he finished?” I yelled at the boat. People on the boat yelled something back, but I couldn’t hear. I started swimming again, smiling. I had nearly reached my personal limit of one hour in the chilly water and was considering heading in to shiver in the sauna. I recall my thoughts feeling soft and fuzzy rather than clear and sharp. I definitely wasn’t feeling confused or disoriented, but it’s a mental change I associate with getting colder.
Evan Morrison, who would once have been “decidedly uncomfortable” in 60F water, had just swum for nearly 9 hours in 52 degree water. He later reported that he shivered in the sauna for five minutes and “went back to a subjective non-chilled ‘normal’ ” after a half hour, a feat he says he could never have accomplished when he first started swimming in cold water ten years prior.
He did not feel cold or shiver while swimming, nor did he experience any “brain fog”, although he noted that he likely would’ve had trouble on traditional hypothermia checks, due to numbness in his jaw after a couple hours, causing difficulty with speaking. I asked him if he had ever gotten brain fog or anything he’d consider a mental symptom of hypothermia early in his career swimming in cold water. He reported that he hadn’t, but that he typically swims for just 1-2 hours and suspects he would experience more trouble if he were to swim for a long time under 50 degrees.
It’s difficult to say if Evan and other swimmers like him were always capable of maintaining consciousness at these temperatures, or if they are that way because of having so many years of experience and with experience they have pushed themselves longer and colder.
In my last post, I discussed the concern among researchers like Tipton, who have written that experienced swimmers might be at greater risk for swimming into unconsciousness than inexperienced swimmers. As I discussed in the last post, one adaptation of regular cold swimming is increased thermal comfort at colder core temperatures (Tipton et al., 2013). This might lead one to continue swimming longer than they otherwise would, as their core temperature falls toward a level at which they are at higher risk of losing consciousness (see Tipton 2019, for example of Jason Zirganos).
The anecdotal evidence reviewed here doesn’t necessarily support the idea that swimmers with many years of experience are generally at greater risk for losing consciousness than those with just a small amount of experience, but there were some signs in some of the stories that swimmers didn’t “feel cold” or especially cold, before losing consciousness. In other stories, like Lynton’s, experienced swimmers felt cold from the beginning of the swim, but still didn’t realize they were disoriented. It does appear that there are signs of waning awareness that are detectable to crew members, if they are assessing the swimmer’s mental status through more detailed questions or tests rather than asking them if they are ok or if they feel cold.
All of the swimmers interviewed had at least enough experience to have habituated to the cold shock response and gain an increased sense of thermal comfort at lower core temperatures. Swimmers who lost consciousness and then went back to complete the same (or harder) swims later, went back with increased knowledge, skill and appreciation of the risks than before. For those with 5-10+ years of experience, it’s impossible to say why they can now do much more difficult swims than they could before experience, as many factors probably play a role. For instance, people can experience changes in body fat percentage, hormones and other physiological mechanisms as they age. They could be improving skills in other areas, such as nutrition or endurance fitness that allow them to better defend their body temperature for the 10+ hours these swims often require. People could be getting better at staying conscious while cold or people could be physiologically adapting in some way that hasn’t yet been scientifically determined. Many of the studies done on acclimation to cold water run over the course of just 3-12 sessions. It’s possible there are physiological adaptations that occur only over the course of several or more years.
The goal of reviewing anecdotal evidence is never to “prove” anything, but rather to consider what factors might be worthy of more rigorous scientific study or to see what a community can learn from experiences in situations where the scientific process has not yet thoroughly addressed a particular question. These stories might leave us with more questions than answers, but at least they leave us with a couple important take aways to guide us to be more safe while pushing ourselves.
Notes for Observers
One of the most important take aways from these stories is that the first signs of mental decline can go undetected by both swimmer and crew, unless they are deliberately assessing mental status. During marathon swims, swimmers have their face in the water almost the entire time and try to make feed breaks very quick, leaving little time for conversation. It seems swimmers will lose the ability to internally self-monitor as their core temperatures fall into the 33°-35°C (91°-95°F) range and that there is considerable variability in which swim conditions can result in such a drop. According to Tipton and Bradford (2014), people lose consciousness, on average, between core temperatures of 30°-33°C (86°F-91.4°F), but gross muscle function can be maintained down to 27°C (80.6°F). The result is that people can continue to swim into an altered state and even into unconsciousness, especially very experienced swimmers for whom swimming motor movements may be fairly automatic.
In my discussion with Amy Gubser, she mentioned that both Joe Zemaitis and Lynton Mortensen were noted as swimming unusually slow compared with their normally well-matched tandem counterparts, but stroke rates were the same as they became more confused, disoriented and hypothermic. I can imagine that during solo swims, a change in speed but not stroke rate might be nearly undetectable for crew members, since swim speeds are greatly affected by weather conditions and currents.
It seems the best method available so far is the use of questions, remembering sentences to recite back, math problems, reciting digits backwards or even reading words from a dry erase board to ensure the swimmer is still lucid and clear headed. I agree with The Zemaitis brothers, that asking someone if they are cold or are “doing ok” is probably not sufficient, although I confess to giving people a thumbs up and expecting that to be enough. I know better now.
To understand what methods might be used to evaluate hypothermia in other adventure sports, I talked with Woody Peeples, a doctor at my local emergency department. He was also the medical director at a search and rescue for fifteen years and provides instruction for people who explore glacial ice caves, like the ones on Mt. Ranier. I happened to meet him at the lake on New Years Day, after my swim bud, Gillian (also an ER doc) invited him to swim with us. I asked him what he thought we could do better with safety during marathon or ice swims.
“Mental status is the most important vital sign,” he told me. “It’s like the vital sign you can take without taking off their clothes”. He went on to point out that could be especially useful during swims, where the crew can’t touch the swimmer to take any other vital signs. “It’s better than respiratory rate, heart rate, temperature or oxygen saturation. Any change in these will lead to a change in mental status.” He says he carries on a constant conversation with people he is rescuing, asking them questions and noting the nuances of how they respond. “If someone says, ‘I’m fine, I’m just a little worried about work tomorrow’, I know they are doing ok, they have enough oxygen.” He recommended asking people conversational questions or to answer questions beyond, “I’m fine”, such as names of family members. “With your last breath, you can say you’re fine”. He went on to recount a heartbreaking story of a rock climber who took a ground fall. He was lying on the ground when Woody asked him, ‘are you ok’? “I’m fine,” he replied and then died shortly afterwards.
The other advice he offered was to find out what your limits are in a controlled environment. He noted that there are enormous individual differences in what people are capable of in terms of handling the cold and that they don’t really have the full picture as to why some people are affected differently than others. “If you’re going to push it, push it in a controlled condition. Test yourself heavily there, then you know where you can go, what you can do.” He also pointed out that it’s not enough to just have other people around. If you are expecting other people to help you, there has to be a clear plan of what they are going to do, beyond just being present.
Another important takeaway is that loss of consciousness due to hypothermia does not at all appear to be a sudden or unpredictable thing like an avalanche or rock fall, but rather a gradual process that does have signs that are detectable to a non-hypothermic observer. This means that challenging swims can be done in cold water, with appropriate risk mitigation, just like the use of a rope in rock climbing. Some researchers have gone so far as to suggest that, “Swimming authorities must enforce minimum temperature rules in open water swimming because some open water swimmers—particularly those who are well acclimatised to cold—are unable to judge how cold they are” (Tipton, 2019). I don’t think people should push their limits in cold water without a sufficient safety plan that includes at least one warm observer, but I don’t think that marathon swimmers should be required to wear wetsuits when the water is under 20°C/68F as stated by Tipton’s group in Saycell et al. 2019. Even though it’s clear swimmers have a hard time judging how cold they are, particularly as their core temperature drops further, it seems possible and advisable to have an outside party monitoring the mental status of the swimmer through a variety of methods, rendering swimming without a wetsuit a perfectly acceptable way of challenging oneself in the elements.
I hope reading these stories does not discourage anyone from swimming in cold water or attempting great things. The people who courageously volunteered their experiences are well-respected, accomplished members of our community. Cold water swimming is a true adventure sport and like other adventure sports, it comes with some risk. Personally, I believe these risks can be mitigated, just as they are in any adventure sport and that it’s possible to enjoy this sport and be reasonably safe at the same time. Part of the risk mitigation process is learning as a community, from difficulties when they happen and being willing to continue forward with improved protocols in place. I am grateful to everyone who made this post possible and hope we will continue to learn from one another as we venture forward into the future of our sport.
Fernandez-Duque, D., Baird J.A. & Posner, M.I. (2000). Executive attention and metacognitive regulation. Consciousness and Cognition, 9, 288-307.
Giesbrecht, G.G., Arnett, J.L., Psych, C., Vela M.A. & Bristow, M.D. (1993). Effect of task complexity on mental performance during immersion hypothermia. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, 3, 206-211.
Kenny, J., Cullen, S.J. & Warrington, G. (2016). The ‘Ice-Mile’: Case Study of Two Swimmers’ Selected Physiological Responses and Performance. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 12, 1-13.
Posner, M.I., Rothbart, M.K. & Yi-Yuan, T. (2015). Enhancing attention through training. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 4,1-5.
Saycell, J., Lomax, M., Massey, H. & Tipton, M. (2019). How cold is too cold? Establishing the minimum water temperature limits for marathon swim racing. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 3, 1078-1084.
Tipton, M. (2019). Drifting into unconsciousness: Jason Zirganos and the mystery of undetected hypothermia. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2, 1047.
Tipton, M. & Bradford, C. (2014). Moving in extreme environments: open water swimming in cold and warm water. Extreme Physiology & Medicine, 3, 1-12.
Jason Zirganos stroked his way through the rough water in a stoic state, despite the hours in the bone chilling, cold waters of the North Channel, one of the world’s most difficult marathon swims. It was 1959 and he had previously completed four English Channel crossings, a swim in the Bosphorous, one across Lake Windemere and plenty of others. In 1955, just four years earlier, he participated in the classic research study by Pugh and Edholm that would lead the way in an intriguing, controversial and complex field of study on the effects of cold water exposure on human physiology.
In the study, “The Physiology of Channel Swimmers”, researchers Pugh and Edholm studied phyiological differences in themselves and English Channel swimmers both in open water and in a tank of water in their laboratory. Zirganos, known as participant “JZ”, sat and read a newspaper in the 16C (60F) water and “did not complain of discomfort other than boredom”. In contrast, when Pugh sat in water of the same temperature, he shivered “violently” throughout the experiment and experienced a “sensation of great cold”.
The idea of being able to sit in 60 degree water and be comfortable enough to read a newspaper appeals to me. I’d like to be able to complete a swim of six hours or longer under 60 degrees so I can swim the English Channel myself one day. I decided to study how one gets to that level and learn as much as I could about what is actually happening to your body as you adapt to cold water.
And just like that, I was off on a different kind of adventure, this time an academic one, into the unfamiliar landscape of peer reviewed human physiology research. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I read on to find that Zirganos had tragically died during his North Channel attempt, three miles from Scotland after swimming for 16 hours and 23 minutes. It was reported that he did not “feel cold” before being extracted from the water and dying shortly after. It wasn’t the first time that he had swum to unconsciousness from the cold. After swimming in the 8C (46F) water of the Bosphorous four 4 hours, he was only semi-conscious and took three hours to become fully conscious again. An unacclimated swimmer would’ve quit or experienced severe stroke deterioration long before reaching this lethal condition.
So maybe feeling comfortable reading a newspaper in 16C water isn’t quite as good an adaptation as it sounds, I thought sadly. In reading a review of the existing research by Castellani and Young, (2016), I found that this type of response to repeated cold exposures, where people become much more comfortable in cold conditions without actually maintaining their core temperature any better (or in some cases worse—I’ll get to that) is the most well documented and clear effect of repeated cold water exposure.
Still, tales of effective cold water acclimation over many years of experience are ubiquitous in our community of marathon swimmers and cold water enthusiasts. I wanted to understand this all better. What is really happening to us as we “adapt” to the environment of cold water? How are our bodies changing in response to this activity? In what ways is it helpful and in what ways can it increase our risks? Are we training ourselves toward our goals of successfully completing longer swims at colder temperatures, or are we training ourselves toward a more comfortable demise?
If we understand these things, it will help us decide how to train, when to trust one’s body and when not to and how to protect each other better when we are observing swims. Finally, one of the most exciting elements of training for an adventure sport is making the connection between the modern, often comfortable body and the harsh elements of nature. Understanding how the environment is changing your body when you participate with it directly, without technological barriers such as clothing (especially insulative clothing), you can gain an intensely meaningful relationship with nature that I always think is getting quickly lost from the human experience.
Me, rocking some insulative clothing, just prior to a chilly swim on a fall day at Lake Billy Chinook
Things Your Body Does to Stay Warm
Before discussing the complex and seemingly paradoxical ways the body responds to cold water training, we should go over the things your body does to stay warm. You can think of these things as tools your body has to stay warm. As you acclimate, your body may change which tools you use and when, but it still has the same tools. To illustrate, I’ll use my first swim into “cold” water as an example.
It was the June of 2017 and I was psyched for my first open water swim of the year in Vancouver Lake. Having followed the Yetis, a Portland cold water swim group on social media all winter, I was inspired to give cold water swimming a try. The water temperature was 64. Growing up as a pool swimmer in 78-80 degree pools, I hadn’t swum in that water temperature ever before and it seemed quite extreme to me. It’s not all that extreme, however. I’ve now swum in water as cold as 37 F and routinely swim in water under 60 F, a testament in itself to at least some sort of acclimation pattern in myself.
One of the ways that a species can regulate our temperature in response to a cold environment is avoidance. For instance, if the water is cold, we can behave in a way that protects us from that environment by just not going into the water in the first place, or exiting the water when we feel cold. I had made the behavioral choice to avoid for 37 years and it was working well for me, except for that nagging little distinctly human desire for frivolous adventure and recreation.
With our highly developed human brains, we have also adapted to cold by producing technology such as clothing to insulate our bodies from the cold. The development of this technology continued to help us adapt to cold water with the development of wetsuits, swimming caps, earplugs and a variety of other neoprene accessories. If you choose this set of behavioral strategies as your primary tool, keep in mind that wetsuits, in particular, are sometimes at odds with the other tools your body has to stay warm and may affect issues like “after drop” (which I’ll get to) and blood pressure (wetsuits are tight, they squeeze you) leading to swimming induced pulmonary edema (SIPE). Also, see Interesting discussion about SIPE on MSF forum here.
The Cold Shock Response
As I entered the 64 degree water, I gasped uncontrollably, my heart rate surging, blood pressure increasing and my brain screaming at me to get out. This is known as the “cold water shock response” and is a reaction to the sudden change in temperature. It habituates (or goes down) after as few as 3-5 swims, even shorter ones, but returns if you swim in water colder than you are used to.
I swam on, thinking that exercising would warm me up. Movement is indeed a behavioral strategy for maintaining or increasing your core temperature. However, the results for movement in cold water are mixed. Have you ever heard the advice that if your boat capsizes in cold water, you should stay with the boat and be still? The logic here is that the more your blood circulates, the more it will conduct heat away from your body and into the water. However, doesn’t exercise boost your metabolism and make heat? Both are true, making for a confusing picture about whether or not movement will keep you warm in cold water or if it will help you lost heat faster.
In Pugh and Edholm’s 1955 study, they compared Pugh’s temperature while swimming and sitting still in 16 C (60 F) water with Jason Zirganos’ temperature under the same conditions. While both men lost heat while sitting still, Pugh’s core temperature dropped drastically while swimming (much faster than sitting still) and Zirganos’ temperature did not drop at all. The researchers attributed this pattern to Zirganos’ much higher body fat providing insulation so that the heat he generated from swimming was not lost to the cold environment. However, in this very small sample of two, it’s unclear whether or not this effect was due completely to Zirganos’ body fat or if it might also have been in part due to other insulative adaptations described below resulting from his many years as a cold water swimmer.
As I swam on through Vancouver Lake’s murky water, I noticed that within about ten minutes, I actually felt just fine. I was no longer cold and was enjoying the swim quite a bit. I later learned that my blood vessels had constricted, a process known as “vasoconstriction”, keeping more of the blood into my core and away from my skin. Most of your body’s cold sensors are in the skin, so when I got in, my skin registered the change in environmental temperature, resulting in the cold shock response, but was now more numb with less sensation. My skin was allowed to cool, essentially jettisoning the warmth of that organ in the interest of keeping more vital organs warm. My skin had turned into its own, natural “wetsuit”. While this made me feel quite comfortable, my body had somewhat dampened its ability to sense the cold environment around me. Nowadays, when I swim in water in the high 40s or low 50s, this effect is especially noticeable. I feel completely “normal” after about ten minutes, almost as though I’m swimming in a pool. I don’t feel the least bit cold until I get out and my skin starts to re-warm. Then, I feel freezing cold. I later learned this phenomenon is due to the numbing of skin receptors that ordinarily signal to you that your body is cold. Once you warm up, you can feel your skin again and the receptors can effectively tell you that you are cold.
This strategy is called the insulative response, because by keeping your blood away from the skin, the skin acts as a better insulator, conducting less heat from the body’s core into the environment. The downside is a loss of dexterity in the extremities and because of colder skin, increased risk of non-freezing cold injury (damage to receptors, nerves and vessels). You might find it hard to remove your wet bathing suit after swimming in order to get warm. If you have an electronic car key, you may not be able to press the button, resulting in a potentially dangerous situation standing cold and mostly naked, dripping wet outside your vehicle. Swimmers also speak of “claw hand”, where you lose the ability to maintain the proper hand position while swimming, resulting in a decline in swimming ability. As you become colder, your body may lose the ability to swim altogether, or even have trouble exiting the water.
Another insulative strategy is to gain more body fat, which can insulate the body beyond vasoconstriction alone. Indeed, many studies have found that people with more body fat were able to maintain core temperatures longer than people with less fat. In a world that tends to glorify thinness, I found it refreshing to consider fat as a contributor to elite level ultra-distance marathon swimming performance, rather than something that would detract from it.
There is a lot of internet folklore surrounding “brown fat”, which is a thermogenic (heat producing) tissue found in human babies, adult mammal and (more recently) in adult humans. Don’t get too excited about brown fat. While recent evidence suggests adult humans do produce some heat through brown fat, or “non-shivering thermogenesis”, according to Castellani and Young (2016), it doesn’t appear to be enough to make much of a difference for long swims in cold water.
After an hour of swimming, I decided to get out. I still wasn’t shivering or super uncomfortable, but an hour seemed like a logical amount of time for a first swim. The rest of the swimmers at the lake that day had all opted for the wetsuit strategy and they stayed in the water longer to take a photo, while I ran to a changing room, got dressed in warm clothes, snapped a picture of the lake and headed for my car. By the time I got in and blasted the heat, I had begun to shiver. Shivering is your body’s main strategy for boosting metabolic heat production while cold. Shivering can be replaced by exercise and is less common when you are moving around than when sitting still. These involuntary motor movements burn calories, use oxygen and are associated by a higher heart rate than when not shivering; heat production can be as high as 5 times the resting level. In research studies, scientists can get an idea of how much energy you are using staying warm by measuring how much oxygen you consume and what your heart rate is. If your goal is to stay warm longer, shivering is a good thing, not a bad thing. Don’t suppress shivers–let the body do its thing.
As I sat in the hot car, heat on full blast, I shivered more and more, an interesting result of the phenomenon known as “after-drop”. Being a nerd-for-data, I have taken my oral temperature while shivering in the car after swims. I get the lowest readings around 15-20 minutes after I get out, a result consistent with research studies using the more accurate esophageal temperature method. While you re-warm, your peripheral blood vessels start to dilate again (opposite of constriction). The overall blood flow increases to your cold limbs and skin, cools and returns to your core, resulting in a drop in your core temperature. If this process happens too quickly, like you might expect if you were to jump into a hot tub, or even a hot shower, where the hot water is dilating your blood vessels much faster, the result could be a sudden drop in blood pressure and a sudden cooling of your core. This is something many swimmers warn each other of, and gradual re-warming is strongly encouraged in the cold water swimming community. In contrast, I noticed in the methods section of many of the research papers I read, that participants were often rewarmed in a “hot bath”. I’m not sure why, as I’m sure the researchers are aware of this phenomenon.
Although I wasn’t able to find any studies directly addressing the possibility, Tipton and Bradford (2014) speculate that the decrease in blood pressure associated with getting out of the water and blood vessels dilating, might be exacerbated by removal of a wetsuit, which would also likely decrease blood pressure suddenly at the same time.
What Happens When You Get Cold Repeatedly
If you get in the cold water often, the things your body does in response are going to change. Many of these changes have been seen in people who live, work and recreate in cold environments as well as people who participate in cold water exposures in a controlled laboratory environment.
This is the most commonly found and well-researched response to repeated cold exposure and it’s not 100% helpful. Basically, what happens when you swim in the cold water a lot is that it gets more comfortable. You don’t have the cold shock response anymore, or it is greatly reduced. You shiver less, you’re less anxious and you consume less oxygen. And also, because you are not shivering or increasing your energy expenditure to stay warm, your core temp drops faster than it would have without this adaptation. In fact, Tipton et al. (2013) found that you don’t start shivering until your core temp drops lower than you are used to having it drop. For example, if you’ve trained to be comfortable at a core temp of 95, then you start shivering at 94. If you’ve trained to be comfortable at a core temp of 93, then you don’t start shivering until you get to 92. Because of this adaptation, the experienced swimmer, who is comfortable and does not feel cold until they are more hypothermic is in more danger than the inexperienced one who feels cold and uncomfortable at a core temperature of 96. In some circumstances, the acclimated swimmer may experience a lower core temperature than the unacclimated swimmer, due to not having activated their shivering response until they are much colder.
Sounds unhelpful, right? I was confused. How could training be so unhelpful? I was hoping I could train and that I could have a higher core temperature for longer and also feel more comfortable. Indeed, I think that is what most swimmers imagine is happening as they become more and more comfortable in cold water, staying in for longer and longer durations.
I was left with more questions than answers and was mulling it all over, when my professor father reminded me that I didn’t have to go on this journey completely alone. “You could always email the authors,” he suggested. “In my experience, most academics are thrilled to have someone reach out to better understand their research.”
After discovering that he had been involved with the development of temperature regulations for FINA marathon swims, I decided to email Michael Tipton, a human physiologist at the University of Portsmouth. I had appreciated several of his papers already and if nothing else, he was clearly oriented toward safety. I figured it’d be better to ask questions than to write something less than accurate about his work.
I told him which papers I’d read and noted there seemed to be some helpful and unhelpful acclimation effects. I wanted to know if the helpful adaptations outweighed the unhelpful ones, thereby justifying the overall impact of training. He sent me more papers to read and pointed out that the effects can be either good or bad, depending on the context. “One thing for sure, I would not rely on a swimmer to determine their deep body temperature and when they should leave the water,” he noted.
In a particularly useful book chapter he sent me, he and his co-authors state,
“… an example is the habituation of the shivering response seen with repeated exposure to cold. This is beneficial, in that it decreases substrate utilisation and improves thermal comfort and the ability to perform fine motor skills, but detrimental in that it can accelerate the rate at which deep body (core) temperature declines during cold exposure. Thus, the same response may be regarded as an adaptation or maladaptation, depending on the circumstance.”
So, some confirmation that I had understood the work correctly. You really can have an accelerated decline in core temperature due to acclimation (or habituation), but it comes with a higher comfort level and better motor skills.
While it still seemed unhelpful, I’ve noticed that with just two winters of swimming under my belt, I still feel pretty nervous in chilly water. While that’s fine for a few hours, being nervous and mentally agitated for 12 plus hours can take its toll and cause one to end a swim before it is physically necessary. I can attest that it’s hard to motivate yourself to swim on, when your teeth have been chattering incessantly for 7 hours. Being able to be mentally more comfortable at a lower core temperature could enable one to swim on for many hours past the unacclimated, anxious, shivering swimmer, thus furthering one’s ability to achieve a long swim goal. Furthermore, full-body shivering or loss of the ability to control one’s muscles or hand position could result in deterioration of technique and eventual swim failure, whereas experienced swimmers have been found to show fewer signs of technique deterioration (Tipton & Bradford 2014).
So, even if your core body temperature does indeed fall faster after undergoing cold water training than before, it might be worth it for the added muscular control and increased sense of thermal comfort provided by the training. This is particularly true for the newbie cold water swimmer who has a long way to go in terms of being able to safely decrease their shivering threshold without putting themselves in danger of hypothermia or death. More experienced swimmers should be very careful as their shivering threshold falls and they are able to descend toward fatal core temperatures as seen on Zirganos’s North Channel swim.
The most important take away for this adaptation is that more experienced swimmers require, if anything, more not less supervision while pushing their limits on long, cold swims. Furthermore, observers should be aware that stroke deterioration, shivering and swimmer-reported comfort levels will all be less apparent in experienced cold water swimmers than newbies and that any sign of these in an experienced swimmer is a big red flag, since the threshold at which you’re going to see these things is going to be a much lower core body temperature than when you’ll see them in someone less experienced.
We often say, “well, she’s a really experienced cold water swimmer. She knows her body well, so she will know when to get out”. While I tend to think that’s true for most other things in athletics, it’s the reverse when dealing with cold. The more experience you have, the more you have systematically disabled all your body’s hypothermia alarm bells.
Me rewarming on the couch after a tether pool swim with a microwaveable sloth.
Another adaptation has to do with how much energy you are using when you are in a cold environment. In 1963, a researcher named Hammel proposed that maybe people would increase energy expenditures to stay warm as they were repeatedly exposed to cold environments. However, similarly to the hypothermic adaptation, it seems the energy expenditures in terms of oxygen consumption and heart rate tend to decrease as you acclimate to the cold, rather than increase. You become more efficient in your energy use, which makes sense since you aren’t shivering or gasping anymore. Your adrenaline is not pumping, you’re more relaxed, even able to sleep at much colder temperatures. Typically, this would result in a lower core temperature, which might result in more energy available for swimming. Even at the expense of a declining core temperature, depending on how long you have to stay in, it could be worth it. However, the decreased metabolic response is not always seen. For example, Golden and Tipton (1988) compared cold-adaptive responses in a group that trained in cold water while exercising with a group that trained sitting still in cold water. The results are complex and the discussion of swim training in cold water versus sitting in ice baths deserves its own post. However, in this study, the ordinarily observed result of a decrease in metabolic response was found only in the sitting still training condition and not the exercise training condition, despite an increase in thermal comfort in both conditions.
This is the most exciting adaptation in that it has the most potential to actually help you have a safe core temperature for longer, not just feel more comfortable. Remember how I mentioned the odd effect of having my skin go numb and not feeling cold? It seems that cold water training helps your body get better at this—keeping blood away from the skin more efficiently, therefore conserving heat longer. In studies, this pattern is often observed with reductions in skin temperatures without as much of a reduction in core temperature while in a cold environment. The same pattern has been observed in longitudinal studies (where participants train in a cold environment and their responses are compared before and after) and between subjects, where responses to cold in individuals from groups who live or work in cold environments are compared with those who do not.
The only downside I can see to this adaptation is a potential loss in dexterity, which can result in troubles mid-swim such as not being able to open food packaging, unscrew water bottle lids, remove earplugs or maintain a proper hand position. Most of these can be remedied by having your crew open packaging, wearing easier to grasp earplugs (or just having your crew yell louder) and practicing swimming with your hands in the fist position to maximize the use of your forearm in “the catch” position in case your hands claw up.
All in all, I’d say I’ve made significant progress on this academic endurance adventure. Gradually, my understanding of the complex systems in our bodies that allow us to swim in cold water has increased. To help pass along my new found understanding, I created this table summarizing the main adaptations and their potential benefits and detriments to marathon swimmers.
For me, one take away is that the goal of acclimating to cold water shouldn’t be to maintain a 98.6 F body temperature for longer, but to be able to swim well and gain the comfort needed to continue for very long periods of time, despite having a lower body temperature. I am a long way from being able to feel comfortable at dangerous temperatures, so I feel that I have a lot of room to adapt before I find myself in a position where I could swim myself into unconsciousness. Nevertheless, I don’t know that for sure, so I think caution is advisable regardless of experience level. I will take Tipton’s advice and not trust myself to know when it is time to get out, but make these decisions based on more objective criteria, such as a predetermined cutoff time, or another person observing a decline in stroke rate or inability to communicate/answer questions quickly and lucidly.
I have concluded that all the adaptations are helpful in their own way, but they are all also risky in their own way. Swimming in cold water is risky. It’s risky for beginners and it’s risky for experts, like Jason Zirganos. Please stay tuned for future cold water posts covering the research on acclimation while sitting still versus exercising, the effects of exertional fatigue on temperature regulation, the effect of acclimating to heat on cold tolerance and other interesting topics.
*Note, special thanks to edits from researcher, Gordon Giesbrecht, incorporated on 12/23/20. He was able to address the question of hot baths used to rewarm participants in research studies with the following remark, “It is important to understand that the ‘hot bath’ is not a field treatment, especially for moderate to severe hypothermia. In the lab studies, the main objective is complete and a ‘warm water bath’ will not harm a subject of a research study since they are just barely mildly hypothermic, if at all.”
Castellani, J.W. & Young, A.J. (2016). Human physiological responses to cold exposure: Acute responses and acclimatization to prolonged exposure. Autonomic Neuroscience: Basic and Clinical, 10, 63-74.
Golden, F.S.C. & Tipton, M.J. (1988). Human adaptation to repeated cold immersions. Journal of Physiology, 396,349-363.
Pugh, L.G.C. & Edholm, O.G. (1955). The physiology of channel swimmers. The Lancet, 10, 761-768.
Saycell, J., Lomax, M., Massey, H. & Tipton, M. (2019). How cold is too cold? Establishing the minimum water temperature limits for marathon swim racing. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 3, 1078-1084.
Tipton, M. (2019). Drifting into unconsciousness: Jason Zirganos and the mystery of undetected hypothermia. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2, 1047.
Tipton, M. & Bradford, C. (2014). Moving in extreme environments: open water swimming in cold and warm water. Extreme Physiology & Medicine, 3, 1-12.
Tipton, M.J., Pandolf, K.B., Sawka, M.N., Werner, J & Taylor, N.A.S. (2008). Physiological adaptation to hot and cold environments. In N. Taylor & H. Grollier (Eds.), Physiological bases of human performance during work and exercise (379-400). Churchill Livingstone Elselvier.
Tipton, M.J., Wakabayashi, H., Barwood, M.J., Eglin, C.M., Mekjavic, I.B. and Taylor, N.A.S. (2013). Habituation of the metabolic and ventilatory responses to cold water immersion in humans. Journal of Thermal Biology, 38, 24-31.
Wakabayashi, H., Oksa, J. & Tipton, M.J. (2015). Exercise performance in acute and chronic cold exposure. Journal of physical fitness and sports medicine, 4, 177-185.
It’s a hot, August morning, and I am sitting on a rock next to the Deschutes river, goosebumps on my skin as my chilled body warms in the sun. Along with my friends, Stacey and Amy, I’m watching Jamie Proffitt slowly inch his way past a large boulder in the middle of the river, only just barely winning the battle with the wicked current threatening to carry him backward with every stroke.
“He’s doing really good,” Stacey remarks, while I agree, thinking maybe I should try what he’s doing next time. That’s Jamie for you, when he does something hard, he makes you want to try it too. A minute or two goes by and he is around the rock and working his way toward the shore we are sitting on, carefully socially distanced from one another, but still able to appreciate the camaraderie we have built with each other over the years.
“The left side of the rock is way harder,” he observes as he emerges from the water, grabbing a towel. We congratulate him and talk about the beautiful weather and refreshingly clear and cool water. Everything is just right and we are appreciating it to the fullest.
Left to right: Stacey, Jamie and Amy at the Deschutes River (the rock is on the right side of the photo)
I first met Jamie at some open water event or another, probably Elk Lake, but I can’t truthfully remember. We became friends when I moved to Bend and randomly joined their group during lap swim. Jamie recognized me and immediately welcomed me to swim in their lane and do their workout, which by the way, was pretty insanely hard. In fact, the first few months of swimming with them just once a week was really difficult. I didn’t want anyone to have to slow down for me and was a little unsure if I should be there. Jamie was the obvious leader, creating the workouts and announcing the challenging sets with a wry grin and a peppy, excited tone, while the others my speed would groan and sometimes protest.
“There’s no way I can make that interval,” people would sometimes mutter under their breath. Other times, other swimmers and I could be seen stoically turning toward our gear bags to add hand paddles or some other assistive gear, resigned to do whatever it would take to keep up.
“You can make the interval,” Jamie would reply to the protesters, in a matter of fact, don’t give me that, sort of tone. And somehow, everyone almost always did.
As a seven year old, Jamie was a “non-athletic” boy who loved first and foremost to read. His mother pushed him into swimming after his pediatrician recommended it on account of his asthma. He joined his local summer league team in Wichita, unable to complete a single length of the pool at the start of the summer, but placing 3rd in the 25 fly (of all things) by the end of the summer. He was young, but already his body had proved how well he could respond to hard work and training.
Perhaps encouraged by this success, he joined the Wichita Neptunes, a local USS/YMCA team and continued to improve rapidly over several years. By the time he was 10 years old, his coach disregarded the age minimum and entered him into the 1650 yard freestyle, which took the young boy a mere twenty minutes to complete (a very fast time by anyone’s standards, but especially in the 70s and certainly for a boy his age). As he grew older and more experienced, he developed a style of “negative splitting” his races, where the second half of the race is actually swum faster than the first half. “It takes me awhile to build up,” he noted. A distance swimmer had emerged already, one who would continue to win races and conquer challenges long after his peers grew tired of swimming and moved on.
Jamie swimming freestyle, already a distance swimmer
Jamie went on to race for the NCAA division one swimming program at the University of Kansas and continued swimming for a masters team after college in Kansas City. Still swimming while in med school, he decided to compete in the masters nationals for pool swimming. Incidentally, the competition was held near Lake Minnetonka, which hosted a 5 mile open-water swim the weekend after the pool competition was over. Jamie had done his first open water swim around age 12 and remembered enjoying it, so he thought he’d give the 5 mile a try, just for fun. Racing some very fast swimmers who had beaten him earlier in the week in the pool competition, he found himself winning his age group and beating the guys who had bested him in the 1500 meter pool race. A seed was planted at this time and Jamie realized, “The longer I go, the better I do”. He would later continue to push himself further and further.
Life in Independence
While in med school, Jamie met the man who would become the love of his life, John Edwards. They started dating while Jamie was in his second year of residency and have been together ever since. The two of them moved to the small town of Independence, Kansas, where Jamie worked in a medical practice while also moonlighting in the local ER. John would become a steady and supportive influence throughout Jamie’s swimming pursuits. “He’s probably more proud of the Tampa Bay swim than I was,” he told me, in reference to John’s supportive demeanor. “He still thinks I’m crazy, but of course he’s supportive.”
While he took a break from his own swimming pursuits, Jamie began coaching the local kids swim team, contributing what he had learned as a lifelong swimmer back to his local community. He had lifeguarded and coached a summer league team during the summers in college, so coaching wasn’t new for him, but he enjoyed helping others connect with the sport that had been so much a part of his life growing up.
No Stranger to Loss
As we sit together on the bank of the Deschutes, there is an almost palpable feeling of appreciation and peace in the air. Hanging out with Jamie makes you not really want to complain about anything. Instead, I find myself feeling a lot of joy and gratitude for all the little things going on near the river. The water pushing past, the sun on my back, the blue sky with air so clear it makes everything look sharper.
“I’ve been looking forward to this all summer,” I say to Jamie, referring to the lack of goals, pressure or overwhelming fatigue. “Like you told me before, this is swimming for the pure joy of it, no pressure, no expectations, just being here.”
When I interviewed Jamie for this blog post, I was in the thick of training for my Tahoe swim. While I genuinely enjoyed the training, a twinge of envy had crossed my mind as he talked about swimming in the river for the pure joy of it this summer. “I’m dedicating this year to family and enjoying swimming”, he said. He noted the relief from the competitive atmosphere of the pool, having a goal to work toward and the pressure to come up with a workout for the group. “There are times I’m swimming in the river when I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, no matter how cold I am.”
Jamie leads Amy and Stacey through ideal conditions on the Deschutes River
I talked with him about how he got to this place of appreciation and enjoyment of the moment and he told me he feels it’s rooted in the losses and hard times he has experienced. For example, his father died when he was in his last year of medical school and prior to that, when he was 23, his younger brother, Erik, passed away from meningitis. “I think about him all the time,” he said, noting that his response to these losses has made him appreciate and enjoy every day. That’s the thing about Jamie’s optimism that makes him so compelling; there’s just no fakeness to it. He’s come by this appreciation for life through extremely difficult circumstances. It’s not the naive optimism of someone who hasn’t yet experienced hardship. It’s the willingness to savor life that comes from having experienced its ephemerality first hand.
How this depth of character translates into the grittiness of an accomplished marathon swimmer, I can’t find the words to accurately describe. However, when Jamie signed up for the 24-mile Tampa Bay Marathon Swim in 2019, held the same day as the 30th anniversary of his brother’s passing, he knew he would not quit, no matter how painful it got.
He had begun marathon swimming by winning his first 10k at Applegate Lake in 2010. He went on to complete his first Portland Bridge Swim (10.8 miles) in 2012, where he achieved a second place after a very strong second half, during which he passed many swimmers who were unable to hold the grueling pace.
Jamie swimming in the Willamette River, through downtown Portland
In 2013, Jamie made the transition into an all vegan diet, a decision he made both for personal health and his love for animals. “I literally can’t kill anything,” he said. He describes John as his nutritionist and noted that John did the initial research and they watched several documentaries that influenced him profoundly. “After seeing the slaughterhouses, I couldn’t get it out of my head.” Both avid animal lovers, he and John have had cats, dogs, a ferret and even a cockatiel, over the years. He even told me that he once wanted to be either a zoo keeper or a marine biologist, before eventually settling on medicine. They currently have two new puppies, Pippa and Dash and a cat named, LingLing.
Dash and Pippa
Nutrition is tricky enough in marathon swimming, even when you’re not vegan, so I asked Jamie for some advice for any endurance athlete wanting to make the transition to being vegan. “It’s surprising how much protein you actually consume in a day,” he said, “but in the beginning, keep track to make sure you are getting enough calories and protein for your training.”
After Portland Bridge, Jamie decided to look or a bigger challenge. He stumbled across the SCAR swim while browsing a list of the “top 50 swims”. SCAR is a four day stage race, with the distances of each day stated as ranging from 6 to 17 miles for a total of over 40 miles. Seeing the race was held in Arizona, he thought, “I can do this, it’s going to be warm”. There’s some irony in that, because it turned out to be anything but warm. Unlike many other open water races, you must apply for this one and be vetted as having enough experience to attempt it. “I can’t tell you how excited I was when I was accepted,” he told me.
At this point, he had been training (along with a few other fast adults) with the local kids team, the Bend Swim Club. Coached by Mark Bernett, practices were geared toward teens competing at the very highest level of competitive swimming, with at least one swimmer qualifying for Olympic Trials every four years. Despite being in his 50s, Jamie kept up with the grueling intervals and even the teens looked up to him for inspiration and positive mental attitude. To prepare for SCAR, he added some longer practices, sometimes doing a “mini-SCAR” as he called it, with four days in a row of 3-6 hour practices. He also started taking cold showers, gradually increasing the time he could tolerate the mid-40 degree tap water. It was a good thing that he did.
One of the unique and wonderful things about marathon swimming is the degree to which conditions can vary to make a swim more or less challenging. Sometimes this plays in your favor and you get to complete a long swim in an astonishingly fast time, with energy left to spare. For Jamie at SCAR 2016, however, there would be no such conditions. He described the first day as cold, with temperatures in the 50s for the first mile, but warming some after that. The second day was windy, very windy. The third and longest day, at Apache Lake, was both very windy and cold and for a time it was unclear how it was going to go. His paddler, Kristine, encouraged him to keep going, but found it difficult to stay with him at times, due to the unrelenting wind. “I had to really dig deep,” he said. “I was hypothermic and getting confused.” Kristine said she could tell he was struggling because he was uncharacteristically irritable and wouldn’t believe her when she told him she could see the finish line. In the end they got there. His dogged commitment to achieving his goal and Kristine’s belief that he could do it payed off. “I wanted to finish because that was my goal,” he told me later.
Jamie on the boat at the Apache Lake finish line
The fourth race at SCAR is held at night. It starts just before dark so swimmers and kayakers are lit up with Christmas lights and glow sticks for visibility. In 2016, a squall blew in during the swim and many described it as absolutely crazy, with kayakers getting dumped out of their boats by large waves and people getting pulled left and right for safety reasons. Somehow, Jamie and Kristine made it through that one as well, both determined to complete all four swims.
The Tampa Bay Marathon Swim
It was with this set of challenging and enriching experiences that Jamie set off on his longest swim yet, a race across Tampa’s 24-mile bay. Having found his training for SCAR to be successful, he developed a similar plan for the Tampa Bay swim. He’s figured out that training in a pool works really well for him, especially with the competitive atmosphere of training among elite level pool swimmers 40 years younger than him. He believes in challenging himself mentally, even when obstacles come up such as stress or sleep deprivation. “I don’t want to work through my demons during a [marathon] swim,” he said. The idea is that if he can train under non-ideal conditions, he can practice working through these mental difficulties and be ready for anything unexpected that might come up.
The stressors began to build going into the weeks leading up to the swim. He had arranged to hire local crew as part of the race organization and was assigned a power boat and kayaker. However, the race date had to be changed, pushed back one day, which meant the original crew could no longer make it. Ron Collins, the race organizer, diligently scrambled and was able to arrange for a replacement boat pilot, but communication with the new crew was intermittent, at best, leading up to the race day. At the last minute, everything came together, but the stress of the logistics had taken their toll. Between that and the 3 hour time change, Jamie was only able to sleep a few hours the night before the race. Unfazed, mostly due to his confidence coming from having done very intense workouts on very little sleep, Jamie began the race at a comfortable-for-him, yet blistering pace for everyone else.
Taking an early lead (with the exception of one swimmer who had decided to start the swim hours before everyone else), Jamie cruised comfortably for some time. In addition to the handful of solo swimmers, there was a relay of six people, called “who let the dogs out”, making their way across the bay, taking turns swimming in shifts. As one grew weary, another would hop in to take up the effort, but Jamie somehow continued to maintain the lead.
Screen shot of the tracker from the race, about 7 hours and 20 minutes in
As the day wore on and the miles between him and the finish grew shorter, the wind picked up, bringing with it a conflict between the ocean swells and the wind current. “The waves were just coming at you,” he said. “It was like being in a washing machine.” A deep, aching pain developed in his abdomen, but he continued to swim on, becoming increasingly exhausted. With the wind whipping against him, the miles went by more slowly. The kayak had to be pulled from the water, on account of the choppy conditions, so Jamie relied on the power boat for navigation.
Seeing that the relay team was gaining on him, the crew on the power boat urged him to swim faster. “They’re catching you!” they shouted during a feed stop.
Hoping to motivate him to swim faster, they motored slightly ahead of him, thinking he would feel the need to swim faster to keep up. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Once a boat goes ahead of a swimmer rather than alongside them, the swimmer can no longer use the boat to navigate from while breathing to the side. The swimmer must use their core muscles to lift their head and upper body up in order to look in front of them to “site” the boat for navigation.
This was a highly painful motion for Jamie, whose abdominal pain grew increasingly urgent. He later learned that he had pulled a muscle in his abdominal wall. He tried stopping to yell at the boat to come back and stay next to him, but the wind was too loud and they couldn’t hear him. He was miserable and in pain, but kept swimming.
In the last mile, the relay team and their boat passed him from a distance away. They took a somewhat different line to the finish, so they were too far off for Jamie to see who was passing him. He thought it might be another solo swimmer and briefly made an attempt to pick up the pace, but to no avail. The miles with the pounding waves and wind had exhausted him and he shifted his focus to pushing effortfully through the last of the 24 miles.
When his feet finally hit the sand, he stumbled and threw himself toward the finish in an attempt to reach dry land that was far more of a relief than it was triumphant. He was happy to learn that it had been the relay that passed him, rather than another solo swimmer. He had not only finished, but won the race by nearly two hours.
Jamie being interviewed after the Tampa Bay marathon swim
Of the swim, he said, “Those are the things that make you a stronger person. There are lots of accolades, but it’s the ones that are hard that you have to actually complete that make you stronger.”
During the interview, Jamie noted the importance of our group of swimmers to him. He described the group as, “caring yet competitive people, genuinely nice. They’re my best friends.” I had often wondered if he’d realized how much his leadership may be contributing to the positive dynamics in the group, so I asked him what sorts of things have influenced his role as leader. He explained that as a physician, “you make decisions all the time” and that part of his job is really about “encouraging people to be better, to be healthy.” He noted that often times people “don’t think they can do it. It’s just too hard”. He tries to provide encouragement for people to try anyhow, telling them, “yes you can do it”.
I thought back to all the times he’d told people they could make intervals they didn’t think they could. It’s a too-rare and very powerful leader who can inspire you to make the best of yourself, someone who changes your perception of what you think is possible. It’s the opposite of the stereotypical, heavy handed or self-aggrandizing leadership we sometimes think of.
As we sit by the river, Jamie announces he’s going to go for three loops on our river course next time.
“I’ll watch you from the deck while eating pizza,” Stacey says with a laugh.
“Ok, just keep an eye on me to make sure I’m ok,” Jamie replies. Never pushy, he is a leader who somehow seems to invite without pressuring. It’s ok to say no, without ever fearing the fallout you might receive from people who want or demand things from you. Paradoxically, this translates into you doing more challenging things than you might otherwise do when pushed too hard.
Left to right: Matt, Jamie, Stacey and Me at the Deschutes River
“There are certainly days when I don’t want to get in the river but he gets me in and it’s a great swim,” Stacey told me when I asked her about it later. “He’s probably the only person who can get me to swim in the river, in the pitch black, at 5:45 am when [the air temperature] is 42 degrees out… he has a way of turning things into where everyone feels really good about it.”
The four of us sit together next to the river for a few minutes before climbing back up the steep bank. “I needed this, you guys,” says Amy, noting how much she appreciates “swim friends”.
“This was good,” I agree, having one of those everythings-going-to-be-all-right moments. I reflect on how nice it is to swim with this small group after spending so many hours and miles swimming alone this summer.
Later, I talked with Amy a little about what it’s been like river swimming with Jamie. She told me about a recent time when Jamie had managed to convince her to swim a track much longer than the usual one in the river. She noted that the last time the group had done the longer route, she had gotten out of the water to walk the final upstream push. (The river is very fast there and it is difficult to inch your way along.) This time, Jamie suggested she do the whole route in the water. “I really didn’t want to and he knew, so he stayed with me for most of the swim.” Amy noted that the group of (in my opinion insanely fast) swimmers finished way ahead of her, but that she was in “happy swimming mode” and took her time. “When I got to [the finish], he was waiting in the water to swim the last part upstream with me. He’s a really good friend”.
When I interviewed him in July, I asked what swims he might want to do in the future. He had already laid out a tentative plan including the “Triple Crown” of marathon swimming, which includes the English Channel, Catalina Channel and the swim around Manhattan Island, now called the “20 Bridges Swim”, and also the California Triple Crown, which includes the length of Lake Tahoe, the Catalina Channel and the Santa Barbara Channel. It’s an ambitious schedule, but one he is most certainly capable of achieving. I know we will all look forward to supporting him on these adventures as he has supported and inspired us on ours.
“Great job! You wanna swim back to the island now?” Someone on my crew joked. I kinda do, I thought to myself. I had just finished my crossing of the Catalina Channel. The water temperature was 72-73 degrees. I had cruised through a nauseous night and built my effort into the finish. My arms were slightly sore, but I didn’t feel fatigued. I was fine, which was good, I thought, because I had sent Tom “Reptile” Linthicum a downpayment on a date to attempt a 42.6 mile double crossing of the length Lake Tahoe.
I knew that such an attempt was a really big deal and would require a lot of training and effort. Only two swimmers have completed the double crossing, Sarah Thomas and Craig Lenning, both on the same day in 2013.
So having trained more or less as planned, with adjustments for the global pandemic we are in, I arrived on the beach at Camp Richardson nearly overwhelmed with adrenaline and itching to get in the water and start the swim. I unfortunately did not manage to eat much that morning. It’s kind of a long story as to why, but I had some of a rehydrated backpacking meal and part of a cliff bar. Stupid, in retrospect, and I’m somewhat ashamed to admit it, but I felt unable to eat any more than that. Next time I will start eating as soon as I wake up, before doing anything else.
I was super excited to see Gretchen Fermer as soon as we arrived. She had finished her own epic length crossing just days before and I was very psyched to congratulate her. Next, we walked over to the boat to say hello to Captain Tom, also known as “Reptile”. I’m not aware of the origin of the nickname, so I usually just call him Tom. We met the other crew members, John and Virginia who would be back up piloting and observing, respectively. I immediately liked both of them and was so happy to have a solid crew.
Originally, we planned to have Spencer Newell, who I refer to as my “endurance mentor” on board. Spencer has completed and crewed for many 100 mile ultraruns and helped me put together my training plan for the swim. Due to COVID, I decided it would be better to limit the number of people on the boat, so Spencer stayed in Oregon as part of my “virtual crew”.
On the Beach
I was having a really hard time thinking clearly before we even started. I kept losing my train of thought and having trouble organizing myself. When putting on desitin as all-day sunscreen, I smeared it all over my goggle line, as if it were normal sunscreen, without thinking. This is a no-no, because you don’t want that stuff on your goggles. Luckily Gretchen and Robin were both there to help me remove it before putting my goggles. I did a few more things like that. I just couldn’t think straight or get myself to think how to communicate with people. I think I was kind of overwhelmed.
Finally, it was time to begin. I ran into the water and it felt cold. The very first thought I had was, “I’m not going to be able to do this”. It just popped up like that. I think I was just really amped up and stressed. I convinced myself it was just hot out and the contrast would wear off soon. I made it through a few feeds and started to appreciate the scenery. Finally, about an hour in, I got relaxed and felt really good. I remembering telling Dan, “this place is awesome. I’m getting into a really good mood”.
Unfortunately, it only lasted about an hour. Between hours two and three is where Dan and I both remember me saying, “something is wrong. I don’t feel too good.” This is notable, because in training I routinely did 5 hour swims three days in a row and never felt like this. I would’ve expected something weird after 12 or more hours, but not on hour two, which is like a quick dip in the water for me.
I remember feeling cold, mostly, despite the balmy 67 degree water temperature. And I remember feeling stressed and working hard to relax my mind along with my body. We had a wind coming at us, from the north and west. A few times, during breastroke, I caught white caps coming directly at me. I resolved to not complain about anything to myself or anyone else and swam on, listening to songs in my head and occasionally admiring the scenery.
Video by Gretchen Fermer:
If my first mistake was allowing myself to slide on breakfast, my second mistake was not complaining. If I had said that Dan should tell the crew I wasn’t feeling good, they would’ve helped me then, instead of on hour 10, when it was too late. All the experienced marathon swimmers will tell you that you need to communicate with your crew. I’m not sure why, but I have a really hard time talking during these swims. I feel like it takes more effort than swimming does. It’s like my brain is foggy and I’m not sure what to say. It also never occurred to me that they could help. I just figured it was what it was and I needed to tough it out. So I kept drinking sports drink according to plan and focusing my mind on relaxing and ignoring the cold.
Around hour 5-6, my teeth started to chatter, a sign my core temp was starting to drop. Another sign was my hip flexors cramping. To be clear, my hip flexors always hurt during long swims, but when I get cold they cramp and spasm painfully. I normally do breastroke to help with this, but it wasn’t working. Over the past week before the swim, while I was staying home, resting and doing literally nothing but swimming 30-60 mins a day, my right knee started hurting. It got worse every day and was worst on the day of the swim. Breastroke was only possible for a few strokes at a time and not enough to relieve the hip flexor problem. During every feed, when my body temp would start to drop, they would cramp up more and it would take 5-10 minutes to get them back to normal, non-cramping soreness.
“I don’t feel good,” I told Dan. “I’m ok, just uncomfortable and I don’t know how this is going to go.”
“You’re doing great and no matter what happens, it’s ok”. I really needed to hear that and it helped. I couldn’t hear what the rest of the crew was saying because I had ear plugs in.
At the next feed, I had half a cliff bar and most of the rest on the following feed. I noticed that it helped my mental stress and the chilly feeling considerably–a clue that my problems may have been partially nutritional. The helpful feeling only lasted for about an hour or so, however.
Despite my discomfort, I was still looking forward to the turnaround and the night swim. I thought that it might not be comfortable, but I would just continue on indefinitely and “see what happens”. I remember thinking, “once I’m on my way back, it’ll make more sense why I feel this bad”.
Around this time, an afternoon thunderstorm had developed at the southeast end of the lake. I caught Dan glancing nervously behind us at it.
“Is it going to thunder on us?” I asked him at the next break.
“No!” he shouted, shaking his head vehemently.
But, I could see the telltale anvil shape of the cumulonimbus cloud looming dangerously behind us, the color dark and foreboding in contrast with the sunny blue sky over our heads. I wondered if it would bring a tailwind, or maybe if it would mean we’d have to get out. (I later learned that the crew had seen just one flash of lightning, but the storm was too far away to be a threat and they allowed me to keep swimming).
Photo credit: Gretchen Fermer
Instead of perseverating on images of the swim getting called off on account of weather, I pictured myself swimming on into the night, getting closer and closer to the starting beach and emerging from the water in the morning light, victorious and exhausted but happy. I really tried to make this my reality, but in the end, it didn’t work. I noticed that Dan was still in the kayak and had been since the start of the swim. I wondered when he would take his break, knowing he was planning to paddle the night with me and also knowing he needed a break first.
The Kayak Switch
Around hour 9, Dan told me he was going to trade out and have Virginia kayak for the rest of the time until dark. I looked at him in a panic. I hadn’t realized how dependent I was on his presence, but I knew he needed the break. I nodded and started swimming again. Virginia joined me and immediately picked up Dan’s style of paddling right in the sweet spot, not too far ahead, not too far behind. She had really listened to what I had told her about my preferences before the swim! I was impressed, but also realized I now needed to see the boat. We had started out with me swimming between the boat and the kayak, but Dan had switched at some point and had been paddling in between me and the boat. I preferred to see the boat on one side and Dan on the other, but figured it might be a safety thing to prevent me from swimming into the boat.
Now, Virginia was paddling where Dan had been, but it meant I still couldn’t see the boat, which had Dan in it. I felt that I needed to see Dan for some reason, but didn’t know if it was ok to switch. As I mentioned, I have a hard time talking to people during swims and an even harder time asking for anything I want. This comes up with Dan but is worse with people who aren’t Dan.
For about 20 minutes, I practiced (in my mind) asking Virginia to switch with me. When she made the signal for feed time, I steeled myself and said, “hey, is there any chance we could trade places?” She was so nice! She was like, “of course, absolutely!!”
So, with a relief, I swam in between the boat and the kayak. This allowed me to more easily bilaterally breath, since there was something to navigate from on either side of me. Plus, I could just focus on Dan, riding in the back of the boat, leaning over the side, looking back at me.
At some point, we switched back, with me again on the outside and the kayak between me and the boat. I was disappointed by this, but assumed it must have something to do with safety or making sure I didn’t get in the way of the boat. Later I found out that I had drifted to the left and Dan interpreted my drifting as intentionally trying to trade with Virginia. He told me he had said, “I think she wants to be over there” and so Virginia had switched back. Another point at which me speaking up more would’ve helped.
Here’s me swimming between the boat and the kayak, before switching back. Photo credit Tom Linthicum
The Ibuprofen Problem
I thought about what feed to have next and realized it was time for the ibuprofen dissolved in sports drink bottle. The problem was that the liquid ibuprofen had binded to something in the sports drink, forming a slimy solid that sat near the bottom of the bottle. I hadn’t noticed this on my test runs because I had used an opaque hydroflask. Dan had remedied this by vigorously shaking it throughout a 20 minute feed cycle. I didn’t think I could figure out how to explain how to do this to Virginia, so I told Dan that he would need to help her. This is where I felt things start to unravel. I stopped and treaded water, trying in my flustered, socially awkward way to explain that it needed to be shaken vigorously in a prolonged fashion to achieve the requisite level of dissolution. But words like prolonged and vigorous were not forthcoming and instead I managed to spit out, “you guys are going to have to figure this out somehow!”
I swam a little further, but not to the next feed. I started treading water again and remembering telling Tom I didn’t feel good at all. I was finally complaining! My teeth were chattering and I was able to explain, “my arms aren’t tired, it’s like a weird fatigue”. That was all it took. The crew snapped into motion. “Let’s get her something hot to drink,” said Tom. Dan quickly located a thermos of mocha and lowered it off the side of the boat with an infinit (sports drink). Try to take in as much as you can,” Tom encouraged. I chugged it, around 10 ounces. The sweet liquid tasted good. “Now the other one,” said Tom. I chugged a good 7-8 ounces of infinit. I hoped it would help and kept swimming. I take Tom’s knowledge seriously, whereas I might struggle to accept advice from some others. He has helped many swimmers cross the lake and has done three lengthwise crossings himself.
Weird Non-Muscle Fatigue
Dan switched back into the kayak around hour ten. I requested sport beans (jelly beans with electrolytes) and took the whole pack in a mouthful at the next feed. The boost of calories and caffeine helped somewhat, but not enough. I had been conserving energy the whole crossing, imagining I’d be swimming all night, but now I was considering maybe stopping at the north end. I picked up the pace and allowed my pulls to be stronger. My arms still felt really good and strong, but my mental will had gotten weak. It was as if part of me had hit a brick wall, while the other part was ready to soar over it, As I warmed up from putting in more effort, my hip flexor cramping improved and I felt warmer and more physically comfortable, but other than that, the weird fatigue hadn’t budged and I still don’t know what it was about. (See the training for Tahoe post for a discussion of my theories). The thought of making the turn felt terrifying for some reason. Just thinking about it made me scared. It was an intense feeling and distracted me from getting to the shore. Gretchen later told me that through all of this, my stroke count remained at a solid 60/minute, similar to how it had been most of the day. In the videos from that time period, I feel that I look strong and my stroke looks great. I can’t tell by looking at myself that I’m feeling bad at all. It was like one half of me was completely and utterly depleted, while the other half of me was solid, stable and happy to continue.
Meanwhile, we were treated to a breathtakingly beautiful sunset and I tried to take it all in, despite my discomfort, knowing the scenery was one of my reasons for making the trip.
Photo credit: Gretchen Fermer
Later, John and Tom both told me they see a lot of “elite” swimmers “bonk” on the swim. Bonking is a fatigue that happens when you don’t have enough sugar to make energy. I know my nutrition was messed up from before I even began and I’ve learned a hard lesson on that one, but I’m happy to have learned it. I also think there was another problem going on for me that it will likely take me some time to figure out. I don’t think I’ll be able to do something as epic as I had planned until I figure out how to manage both of these issues.
In any case, I was kind of panicking and told Dan to let the crew know I was seriously considering stopping at the north end of the length. I was hoping I would change my mind by then, but the whole feeling just got worse as I swam on.
Somewhere in there, he gave me my clear, night swimming goggles and I crack the glow stick I had attached to my suit. The sun went down, the stars came out and it was dark.
Photo credit: Tom Linthicum
At the next feed I asked Dan if he had told the crew yet and he said that he had. I started asking him, repetitively, if anyone was upset with me for thinking about stopping. He kept reassuring me that, no, no one was upset.
The Last Feed
“We’ve got .8 miles left,” said Dan.
“So, this is the last feed then,” I replied. “Is anyone mad at me?” I asked again.
The last feed. Any sadness I might have had about letting go of the goal I had been shooting for over the past year was overwhelmed by relief at the prospect of feeling my feet on the sandy beach. I swam on, counting my strokes and knowing I had just a few over 600 cycles left.
We eventually reached the boat mooring field and had to carefully make our way through the anchored boats in the dark. I stayed close to Dan and did a lot of breastroke so I could look where I was going. I tried to avoid the knee-searing breastroke kick.
Finally, my hands touched the bottom and I walked out of the water. The crew gave a cheer and Dan said I needed to get back in the water and swim to the boat. I didn’t really want to, but it wasn’t far away and before I knew it, I was there. The ladder was there for me to grab onto and John was reaching down from the boat above, offering his hand. I hesitated.
“Ok, are you sure you want to get out?” Dan asked.
“Wait, let me just think for a minute,” I said.
I still wanted to feel able to continue. I wanted to find myself changing my mind. I wanted to have “it”. But I didn’t have it. Not then, not in that moment. I didn’t want to swim all the way back. And even now, a few days later, as I write this, the fatigue has faded from my memory and I’ve been wracking my brain to determine the limiting factors so I can learn and try something like this again one day.
I grabbed the ladder and climbed out onto a towel I had brought with me to protect the boat from my desitin slathered body. “In case something happens,” I had told Tom, with the casual assumption that under no circumstances except emergency was I getting on his boat.
The Boat Ride Back
I was in a surprisingly good mood on the way back. I wasn’t incoherent or foggy or anything at that point. I put on sweat pants, a long sleeved shirt, a sweatshirt, my swim parka, Virginia’s swim parka and a blanket over my shoulders. The crew made me a hot chocolate and Dan put his arm around me. It was downright cozy as we all admired the stars, falling meteors and moonrise on the horizon. It was good to have that time to chat some with the crew.
I’m not afraid to be disappointed. When you truly devote yourself to a goal and you don’t get what you were going for, there is a gap between what you wanted and what you got. If that gap is there, you’re going to feel the feeling of disappointment. The bigger the gap, the bigger the disappointment. And it is OK.
Disappointment is not a condition that threatens one’s mental health. Beating yourself up, subscribing to distorted, negative stories about being “not-good-enough” or otherwise hating on yourself is harmful. However, the emotion of sadness itself is part of what happens when you whole-heartedly pursue things that have meaning to you and you fall short. It is far worse for mental health if your fear of disappointment prevents you from trying to do hard and meaningful things or tricks you into telling yourself you “don’t care” when you secretly do. This kind of apathy can lead to avoidance and depression. It’s the reaction to disappointment that can be harmful, not the disappointment itself.
Caring about things and pursuing them with intensity brings richness and meaning to life and safeguards against depression. If the cost of that is occasional disappointment, I’m all in.
Besides all of that, the gap between what I wanted and what I got isn’t as big as it might seem. In mileage I wanted 42.6 and I got 21.3, but I signed up for this wanting to learn something about my endurance and experience a real challenge. I got both of those. I wanted beautiful scenery and water so clear you can drink it–got both of those. I wanted to go on an adventure with Dan and spend some more time with some cool people on my crew–got those too. It’s also not lost on me that I completed a length of Tahoe crossing, an epic swim by anyone’s measure. And I am now two thirds of the way to a “California Triple Crown”. So I got probably 9/10 of the things I wanted from this experience.
The Next Day
The next morning, I woke up around 6:30 am and made some coffee and oatmeal. I was pleased and slightly frustrated that I felt totally fine and ready to go do some adventuring around Tahoe. I was also super hungry. I ate tons of most everything while I texted a couple friends and waited for Gretchen and Dan to wake up. I guess my training had paid off in a way since I seemed to be recovering rapidly.
That afternoon, Dan and I hiked up to the top of the ridge near where we were staying in Incline Village. While I huffed and puffed up the steep ridge, my heart rate up higher than it had been during the entire swim, I felt the best I had since arriving at the lake. My mood improved and I felt strong and capable. We thought it would be good for me to see the lake from up high, to give some perspective on the enormity of the accomplishment.
From up high, the boats looked like tiny specks in an inland ocean. I envisioned myself as a tinier speck next to a tiny white boat, swimming stroke after stroke, hour after hour, crossing the entire watery expanse.
I don’t feel like I need to plan my next adventure anytime soon and with the pandemic, I don’t plan to be able to train in the pool this winter. So, instead, I plan to take the opportunity to get back to some of the other athletic activities I enjoy. I’m looking forward to exploring the outdoors with hiking, backpacking, climbing and mountaineering. These are activities I’ve done in the past but have taken a back seat due to the time and energy required to get ready for this swim. I think I can get in the water throughout the winter, just for fun here and there and eventually ramp back up when the time comes.
I first got the idea to try a double crossing of Tahoe because I wanted to do something really hard. I wanted to challenge myself to the point of being tempted to quit, of having to push my limit stroke by stroke. When I decided to try to do this swim, I hadn’t yet experienced this feeling. END-WET, SCAR and Catalina had all left me wanting more.
To get my training plan in order, I spent a lot of time talking with 100 mile ultra runner, Spencer Newell, a friend I met at the pool. He was working on swimming to improve his Ironman so it was a fun exchange of ideas and experience. He introduced me to the idea of back-to-back-to-back training days of increasing duration and we talked a lot about the over-reaching/recovery balance to avoid overtraining syndrome. We agreed that a good approach would be to get up to 60-70k meters/week for the two months before the swim, with 5-6 hour back-to-back-to-back days.
Fall-Winter Pool Training
I didn’t want to take any time off after my Catalina swim last September. I’ve found that the steep increases in training amounts take a huge toll on my body, leaving me feeling weak, irritable and losing weight. Alternatively, maintaining a base of around 30-40k a week is really manageable and feels really stable for my body. I was only going 40-50k/week for END-WET and SCAR and less than 40k for Catalina and was really pleased with my results and my body’s ability to quickly recover and not experience any mind-bending fatigue during the swims. So I held it at 30-40k/week with a recovery week every 5 weeks through October-December. I started to increase during January and made it to 50k/week for a few weeks in February. I started to experience some issues with recovery or something around that time. I was getting slower on my 10k pool “test” swims that I use to measure if my training is doing what it should be doing. So I thought maybe I’d spend an extra week on recovery and change a couple things around.
I didn’t have to force myself to back off, because the pandemic hit and I stopped swimming cold turkey. Even Lake Billy Chinook was closed to visitors and the other nearby lake was still in the low 40s. I was pretty upset about how people were suffering: lots of people were getting sick, essential workers had inadequate PPE, friends and one family member of mine got diagnosed, people were dying. I suddenly didn’t care at all about swimming or goals or over-reaching/recovery balance. I took almost a month off and didn’t do much at all. I did run-walk laps around my driveway and rode my bike trainer on the porch, but I can’t do either of these activities for very long without exacerbating a chronic pain issue in my low back. I did some PT exercises to keep my shoulders strong and try to help my back.
Eventually, realizing the pandemic was going to be a marathon, not a sprint, I got myself a tether pool–a backyard, above-ground pool where one can swim in place while attached to a piece of rubber tubing, which I tied to a nearby tree.
The water comes out of my well at around 45 degrees, but it only took a few days for the temperature to reach the low 50s, where it stayed for a few weeks. Then for awhile, I could swim in anywhere from 54-58 degree water depending on if I swam before or after work. I converted my favorite pool sets into stroke count sets. For example, I’d do 6 x 100 stroke cycles, with easy/medium/hard/easy/medium/hard effort. I checked my heart rate after the fast ones to make sure it was comparable to swimming hard in the normal pool. It only took one workout for me to see that this was going to work for me. I honestly have enjoyed the tether pool and plan to continue to use it the rest of the summer and for years to come. My arms are stronger than they have been and I did not experience soreness in the usual places during the Tahoe swim that I have in the past.
By the time Haystack Reservoir warmed into the low-mid 50s, I was able to start ramping up hours again, with a combination of time spent in the tether pool and in open water. Since you don’t go anywhere in the tether pool, I switched to counting hours and making 18-21 hours/week my goal instead of 60-70k meters/week.
Soon, Lake Billy Chinook, my spot for winter swimming, was re-opened along with some other state parks in areas not hit hard by the pandemic. My schedule was something like this for awhile: Monday and a Tuesday 1.5 hr tether pool practice, Wednesday off, Thursday 3 hour tether pool, Friday, Saturday and Sunday lake days. My three lake days increased in duration until I got up to 15 hours over three days.
I did 10 hours one week, 12 the next, then 13, 14, 15, 16 and then a rest week of 11.5. By June, I went 18.5, 20.5, 20 and then a rest week of 10.5. By this point, I was feeling really strong, recovering well and confidence was growing. However, there were warning signs that things were off. I keep a log on a calendar of the lakes I swim in, including the temperatures and the duration of the swim. It didn’t take long for me to notice that I was way off my cold tolerance from last year. I was consistently less able to tolerate water in the high 50s and mid 60s than I had been the previous summer. This surprised me as I had been training daily in cold water as opposed to the 80 degree pool I was used to before the pandemic. I think I wanted to believe it was just a fluke, that I was cold because I was tired from training and that it was something a good old-fashioned taper would fix.
If I had to do it all over again, I’d go for one 5 hour lake day followed by a ten hour day, then increase the 5 hour day until I could do two ten hour days in a row. I think this approach would’ve revealed the problems I’ve been having early on (especially with cold tolerance) and given me more time to fix them.
The water temps were comparable to what I got at Tahoe. The first seven hours of this swim were great, but then I experienced the same, strange, non-muscular fatigue I ended up getting at Tahoe. It came on with the shivers, hip-flexor cramping (that I only get when cold) and mental stress of feeling cold. I couldn’t figure out why I was getting so cold in water I previously would’ve described as “balmy”. I had lots of theories and still do, but not enough time before Tahoe to test them. The prevailing theory was that I was tired and needed rest.
After Billy Chinook, I practiced swimming easy, at altitude, at night for 4 hours at a time in 65-68 degree water. These swims were enjoyable, beautiful and fun. But they didn’t end up helping to address whatever the problem actually is. Here’s a blog post about the second of this series of swims: https://oregonlakebagging.wordpress.com/2020/07/19/a-stellar-swim/
I lost weight during the time I was training 18-21 hours/week. I ate a lot–like as much as I could and kept losing weight. In total, April to July, I lost about 8-9 pounds. That doesn’t sound like that much, but I now weigh what I weighed in the 8th grade. I reasoned that maybe my cold tolerance was affected by loss of insulation. I don’t consider myself to be especially slender, but I believe each body has a different “healthy weight” and mine might be slightly under what could be healthy for me. I spent the four weeks between the 25 mile lake Billy swim and Tahoe resting and eating as much as I could, hoping to gain some back, but having no measurable success. I never thought I’d be stressed about losing weight, but here we are.
I got diagnosed with hypothyroidism when I was 26. I was pretty sick by the time I got diagnosed with it, shivering indoors despite layers of clothing, overwhelming fatigue and falling asleep at 8pm. Now I just take some medicine each day that has helped me regain all my functioning. Still, your thyroid affects literally everything else happening in your body, like your resting heart rate, how your cells are energized and how you stay warm. One of the most common symptoms is feeling cold even when others around you aren’t. The day before my Billy Chinook documented swim, my teeth started chattering in my house. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t feverish (I felt fine) and took my body temperature. 98.5. So no fever… and also not actually cold. This experience of random teeth chattering was an issue for me before I got diagnosed as hypothyroid and has been an issue since around March of this year.
My nutrition hasn’t been great. I love to eat lots and lots of fruits and vegetables. But I’ve also been trying not too lose weight so have been relying on higher calorie, processed foods to make up the difference. I think if I try something like this again, I’ll make sure I get more whole foods that are rich in minerals and antioxidants. One of my theories is that I’m depleted on some mineral or another from too much training on a bad diet. And even if that’s not the problem, eating more healthily could be useful for my general long-term health.
More Than the Miles
Training is so much more than packing in the miles. I’ve learned how complex it can be when you’re trying to push your limits. I think before this I had a kind of laissez-faire attitude about it. Like, I’ll just do the work and I’ll be fine. Now I’m getting that there are more factors and if you change one thing, it can change all the others. I still believe that putting in a lot of miles is critical to success and is the reason why my muscles weren’t fatigued at the end of the Tahoe swim, and the reason I popped out of bed the day after my failed double attempt, looked at the surrounding ridges and decided to go on a hike that afternoon to get a good view. So why did I stop the swim after a single length and ride in the boat on the way back instead of swimming as planned? See the next post: What Happened at Lake Tahoe.
“It’s nice to have an end to journey toward, but it’s the journey that matters, in the end”.
This has been one of my favorite quotes, ever since it appeared in a deck of inspirational phrases my parents got me as a gift when I was about eleven years old.
A couple nights ago, I switched from morning swims to night swims, with the goal of getting comfortable swimming at night. The end I am training for? A long swim, partially at night, across Lake Tahoe, which spans the border between California and Nevada. Though it’s just a point on the path toward something I’m super psyched to do, last night was so spectacular, it’ll stick out in my memory forever. It has the potential to be one of those things I look back on when I’m 97 and say, “I am so glad I was there, then”.
The first night practice left me extremely excited, happy and wanting more. We had an issue with the lights on Dan’s kayak (why we practice) and had to end early, just as things were getting really good with the stars. So, we arrived back at Elk Lake last night, knowing we were in for a treat.
Dan the first night, getting the kayak ready with lights.
Elk Lake is a favorite for Central Oregon swimmers. Nestled at 4900 feet among the mountain peaks of South Sister, Broken Top and Mt. Bachelor, both the air and water are beautiful, cool and clear. Especially at night. I did my first night swim here two years ago.
I don’t have any pictures after sunset, so I’ll do my best with the descriptions.
I got in the water and started swimming, a glow stick attached to the back of my suit and another to the front. I like doing backstroke, so I need one on each side. Otherwise, I’m told I just vanish when I switch to backstroke, I also had a red “dog light” attached to my goggles that I can turn off and on by rotating.
I practiced activating the glow sticks while they were already attached to me, while treading water and was pleased I was able to do it without removing them from my suit.
So I swam on, literally into the sunset, watching pink glows to the east and a warmer, yellow glow to the west, occasionally picking my head up to glimpse South Sister, hallowed in colors to the north. I made a point of practicing relaxing for the first hour. Relaxing my body and also my mind. It felt really nice.
I found if I over-rotated my head toward to sky on the breath, I could see the first few stars popping out, and then even the first constellations. And then, before I knew it, it was dark. There was no moon to reflect the hidden sun and stars were emerging rapidly, speckling the sky. During times when Dan had to adjust something in the kayak, I would swim ahead, alone, out into the unknown, but feeling somehow comfortable in spite of the darkness.
I saved my hot chocolate drink for the last hour of the three hour swim and by then the air was a cool 50 degrees, causing the 67 degree water to feel quite warm in contrast. I took off my goggles and floated while sipping the chocolate. It was bliss. The Milky Way was as thick as my arm and spectacular in its reach across the sky. Looking south, Jupiter was so bright, it cast a reflection on the water.
I looked directly up and was awe-struck by the clarity of the air and intensity of the gazillions of stars shining back at me. A meteor streaked across the sky and I made a wish. And as if all that wasn’t enough, I turned to face northwest to take in the comet, NEOWISE, which has captured the obsessions of star gazers everywhere. The comet hung near the horizon, as if paused, mid-air, doing a swan dive into the lake, the tail streaming out behind it.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but I was seeing it. There is something really special about being immersed in the water below and surrounded by the stars and night sky above, the contrast between the horizon and water nearly gone. It’s like swimming suspended in space, the context completely shifted, with far fewer spatial reference points. I did a lot of backstroke that last hour, watching the stars through my clear goggles as I swam. I counted four meteors, some traveling far across the sky, others just a quick blip before burning up and gone forever in the earth’s atmosphere.
Everything is fleeting and goals are just a place we’re headed to. But the things we see along the way–wow!
Last Thursday, July 9, in Lake Billy Chinook, I swam my longest current neutral swim and longest swim by duration. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful. It was hard. I got cold, and I’m proud for pushing through. Over 26 miles by gps track, and around 25.4 miles by shortest route plan distance, I swam for 13 hours and 14 minutes. It’s also my first official “documented swim” attempt (explained below) and interestingly, this overwhelms me with pride, even more so than the distance. It will take some time for the swim to be officially reviewed, as the process is much more thorough than simply looking at my GPS track. Documenting the swim is meaningful to me on many levels, which I hope to express in this post. But first, I’ve got to explain what a documented swim is and why I was doing it.
The Marathon Swimmers Federation
When I started training for my first Portland Bridge Swim in 2013, I stumbled upon the Marathon Swimmers Forum, a project of the Marathon Swimmers Federation (MSF). The forum was filled with useful information contributed by experienced marathon swimmers regarding training plans, nutrition and other helpful tidbits. I continued to rely on this resource when I prepared for the swim around key west (that got canceled). While training for END-WET, I consumed forum posts like they were popcorn–reading voraciously almost nightly, catching up on posts and threads from years prior. I even signed up for the forum and made a few timid posts myself, but mostly I was a lurker. I was in awe of the other swimmers participating in the discussion. They seemed friendly and knowledgeable, but also gritty as hell–everything I’ve always wanted to be. These are people who run toward the cold, the discomfort and the long, dark miles at night rather than away from them. They are people who aren’t concerned with buying $1,000 technical racing suits, but who will swim in age old speedos or athletic style bikinis in 50 degree water. It’s an ethic of low tech, traditionalist style athleticism that somehow seems to be fading underneath the commercialism of sponsorships and technical advances in equipment that dominate many sports. I was hooked.
As I read the forum, I discovered several other projects provided by MSF–the long swims database and something called a “documented swim”.
Long Swims Database
Marathon swimming is an interesting sport because there is no central governing body. An entity called FINA governs some races, often in the 10 kilometer (6.2 mile) distance, including the Olympics, but allows additional assistive equipment, such as technical racing suits and wetsuits. I think that’s fine and would wear one too if I were in the Olympics, but that’s a very different type of challenge and training than preparing your body to swim over twenty miles in cold water without the assistance of a hydrophobic or floating neoprene suit.
Many channel swims (e.g., English Channel, Catalina Channel, Strait of Juan de Fuca) are governed by local groups that set rules for what constitutes “standard” or acceptable equipment, what the ratified route will be and what, if any, qualifications must be met before making an attempt. These groups train observers to come along on your swim to ensure that you completed the swim according to the rules and provide very detailed, extensive documentation of your swim. In many cases, these groups have also done considerable work communicating with local coast guard and/or government agencies to ensure that swimming in the area can be done at least somewhat safely in the context of other activities (e.g., shipping by large boats and barges). It’s important to do swims through these groups for many reasons, not the least of which is that just jumping in the water wherever and swimming across shipping lanes can potentially jeopardize us being allowed by local governments to continue to do what we do.
Example page from the observer log provided to me by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation
Each of these local groups are separate and unaffiliated with one another. They keep their own records and for a long time, there was no centralized location containing information about marathon swims throughout the world. Evan Morrison, an experienced marathon swimmer with a love for data analysis and record keeping created the Long Swims Database and filled that gap, essentially forming a centralized repository for results in the specific niche of marathon swimming. So nowadays, if you complete a solo marathon swim managed by one of these local groups with trained observers or if you complete a marathon swim that is part of a big group event, your time and a few other pieces of information can go into this cool database. According to the database website, longswims.com, there are currently over 59,000 marathon swims listed, done by over 22,600 swimmers in 133 countries.
So what if you want to do a long, solo swim where no one has done one before, where there is no local organization who has already paved the way for you? If you do the swim, how can the other swimmers out there know that you really did it and did it with standard equipment (textile swimsuit, cap, goggles, ear plugs) and did it without hanging on the boat, getting on the boat for a break, or having other people touch you to put on sunscreen or non standard equipment? MSF created a process and set of guidelines for having your own observers come with you to take extensive notes, photos and videos to be collected and submitted to them for review, and hopefully ratification. The organization is currently conducting reviews of swims under a core group of eight highly respected and experienced marathon swimmers.
Once approved, the swim can be included in the Long Swims Database and the detailed information from the swim is also available for others to review on the website, which is useful for reasons of transparency as well as planning or learning from your experience. It’s worth noting that MSF has always been clear that documented swims are not an option that can take the place of doing a swim through one of the established, local associations mentioned earlier. It’s just for situations where there is no local association established to document your swim, but you’d like to document it anyhow.
For an incredible example of a documented swim, go here and learn about Sarah Thomas’ epic, 104 mile swim, the longest continuous, current neutral swim in recorded history.
Doing this swim with observers and a “repeatable route” (explained below) with the plan to submit it to MSF for ratification, rather than as a private project was important to me, because of the connection to this particular group of people who I have long admired. You can do stuff on your own, and Dan (my boyfriend-kayaker) and I often do. But there is something intangibly important about linking it in with what other people are doing. It’s not really general recognition I’m after. It’s recognition from people who have done other really hard things, who will encourage you to give more and try harder. People who won’t look askance at you and say that you are “crazy”.
Lake Billy Chinook
The idea for a long swim around Billy Chinook occurred to me last spring. I was researching possible long swims and realized I could do one in my own backyard. Situated less than ten miles north of my house, Lake Billy Chinook was named for a Native American guide of the Wasco tribe who assisted explorers in 1843-1844 expeditions. The lake covers approximately 4,000 acres, most of which is part of The Cove Palisades State Park, with the southwestern shores of the Metolius arm managed by the United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The northern shores of the Metolius River are part of The Warm Springs Indian Reservation, which spans 1,000 miles to the north.
The lake is the confluence of the Metolius, Crooked and Deschutes rivers and was formed with the construction of The Round Butte Dam in 1965. These rivers carved deep canyons out of the rock, forming dramatic vertical cliffs showcasing layers of geographic history. A trip by kayak (or swim) through these waters is breath taking and humbling, no matter the distance.
After the confluence of the Crooked and Deschutes, heading north, toward the dam. Photo credits for the rest of this picture and the rest of this post go to Lauren Smith.
A Little Hydrology
The Metolius River flows out of an underground spring near Camp Sherman, twenty-nine miles to the west of the dam. At approximately 48 degrees, the water is cold and crystal clear. On a sunny day it sparkles alongside rich-red ponderosa pines and riverbanks lush with green plant life. A number of tributary streams flow into it, helping it to grow bigger and broader until it ultimately flows through the dam and becomes part of The Deschutes River.
The Deschutes River flows from the Cascade Mountain range and also comes from a spring fed creek near Little Lava Lake, about 100 miles from Lake Billy Chinook. It is fed by additional spring fed creeks along with snow melt.
Finally, The Crooked River flows from the much drier area east of Lake Billy Chinook. It is fed by springs and creeks along the way, including The South Fork Crooked River, which originates north of Glass Buttes, some 80 or so miles east of the city of Bend.
When these three rivers mix together in the lake, the water from the Metolius, being the clearest and most dense, sinks to the bottom, with the less dense water of the Crooked floating to the top, and water from the Deschutes sinking only to the middle. So for swimming, regardless of which arm of the lake you’re in, you’re mostly swimming in Crooked River water and the temperature of the surface water only varies several degrees, despite the river temperatures differing by much more before reaching the lake. On the day of my swim, temperatures ranged from 65-69F.
The Swim Route
For many of my training swims, I get in a lake and swim around until it’s time to get out. Sometimes I go straight across and back, swimming laps, sometimes I follow the perimeter of the lake or zigzag back and forth. If Dan is with me and he’s bored, he will try to draw something or write his name with the GPS track to see if it is visible on the map after the swim. All these are great if it’s a swim only for you and you’re not trying to link it up with anything anyone else is doing or provide any kind of record for what you did. For instance, if you say you swam the perimeter of the lake, what does that actually mean? Could someone else do a shorter perimeter, further from the shore, and claim to have done the same thing? If you are trying to make a record of what you did for purposes of connecting (or comparing) with what other people have done, then you will have to be more precise, which brings us to the notion of repeatable routes. Such a route must have some geographical landmarks that you must go past or around, like a bridge or an island or campground. It can’t be something that moves or is temporary, like a buoy. The route should take the shortest distances between these landmarks, rather than meandering around toward them. Here is some from Evan Morrison’s personal page to help you create a repeatable route.
For my route, I wanted to swim in each of the three arms of the lake, so I determined I would go past the bridges in the Deschutes and Crooked arms, then around Chinook Island in the Metolius. Here is the planned route as drawn in my GPS tracking app.
I had some help from Evan, who took a look at the first drawing and said it was a cool route, but helped me draw the lines slightly differently to get the shortest distance between the landmarks.
This project became even more meaningful to me once I found two people who were not only willing, but excited about helping me document the swim. Both experienced outdoors-women and adventurers, Mary Louise Warhus and Lauren Smith agreed not only to accompany Dan and I on the 13 plus hour trip, but also to learning how marathon swimming works, what the rules are, and why they’re important. They learned how to take stroke rates, use the anemometer and apply the Beaufort scale to open water. The three of us are rock climbers and are used to planning extensively for expeditions, using safety protocols, backing things up with redundancy and contingency planning. I’m used to trusting them with my life as belay partners and we are good at communicating very clearly with one another while under stress, or as I like to say, “freaking out”. Furthermore, we had endless text strings and email threads during which they took the time to read forum articles and conversations dating back to the early days of documented swims and asked well thought out questions before the day of the swim approached. Coming from rock climbing, another adventure sport where people are often setting records or logging first ascents far from the eyes of an audience, they understand the importance of integrity when it comes to following rules and reporting honestly what occurred. Even though they aren’t swimmers, it became clear early on in the planning stages that they would be excellent crew members and I was absolutely correct on that. Having them with me meant the world to me. They have the same adventurous take on things as I do and my mind was blown that they wanted to come along and support me in this way.
Mary Louise (left) and Lauren (right)
And then of course, there’s Dan, who is there with me every step of every day, especially since shut down when we are literally at home together every day. I’m incredibly lucky he finds these adventures meaningful also. He says he likes to kayak because it gets him out of the house and outside and there isn’t pressure of conversation. He is an introvert and notes that it’s good for him to have time to himself to think through things out on the water. Still, he has other hobbies he likes to do and I’m very grateful that he continues to choose to be there with me.
Because of COVID-19, we wanted to limit the number of people on board the pontoon. I asked Dan if he thought he might want to kayak the whole distance. Yes, I realize this is insane. I told him he could get out and take a break periodically (which he did not do). He had kayaked the whole way across Catalina with me (over 11 hours), so this was his longest kayak yet as well. With Dan and I in and on the water, it left Mary Louise and Lauren with plenty of elbow room aboard the 24 foot pontoon boat, named “Sweetwater”.
The Crooked Arm
So at 05:48.22 (am) according to the beautifully completed observer log, we set off. I swam through the marina and out into the Crooked River Arm, heading south to the bridge. The water felt absolutely wonderful and the relief of actually beginning after so much planning washed over me with each stroke. I concentrated on going easy, taking smooth, slow strokes, one after the next. I looked over at Dan in the kayak, navigating using the gps app map I created for him and to the other side at the pontoon boat, where Lauren and Mary Louise looked happy and confident as they cruised down the lake. All was well.
We reached the bridge over The Crooked River not much longer than an hour later, took a photo of me on the far side of the bridge, and continued back north.
A beautiful scene as we made our way back north:
And I couldn’t resist some backstroke to get a different view:
The Deschutes Arm
We reached the spot we call “The Wedge”, the confluence of The Crooked and Deschutes rivers, in what felt like a lot sooner than I expected. On maps and descriptions of the area, The Wedge is actually referred to as “The Island” or “The Island Peninsula” even though it is not an island at all. It’s an interesting place, with ancient petroglyphs, that is no longer open to the public. It’s a spectacular spot to see and I look forward to going there every swim.
The water was cooler there. It always is and I was mentally prepared and adjusted quickly. I still focused on not allowing myself to “try hard” or speed up my stroke rate. Looking back on my observer log (which includes stroke rate), I see I succeeded. I remember feeling great at this point and had a song called, “Riding with the Ghost” in my head. It occurred to me that with all of the desitin I had spread over my body for sun protection that I probably looked like a ghost. I found this thought to be hilarious at the time as I turned up the volume of the song in my head and swam along to it. Weird, I know.
About halfway to the next bridge the water warmed up considerably and felt even more awesome. I slowed down to a very comfortable cruise and was in a really good mood. On every feed I gave a thumbs up to share my positivity before moving on. I reached the Deschutes bridge, swam backstroke underneath, requested some Miso soup for the next feed and started swimming back toward “The Wedge”. As I entered the cooler, deeper water heading back north, I decided to go harder for awhile since I thought that would help me feel warmer. I now think this was a mistake. Of course I am warmer when my heart rate is higher, but having a high heart rate causes vasodilation–basically your blood vessels open up to better supply oxygen to your muscles. This helps you swim a little faster, but it’s the opposite of vasoconstriction–the narrowing of blood vessels to keep warmth in. Vasoconstriction is one of the adaptations that occurs when you do a lot of cold water swimming. It helps you stay warm by moving blood away from your skin and closer to your core. The blood can stay warmer longer when it’s not so close to the surface of your skin, which has been chilled by the water. Sure, I’m warmer when my heart rate is up, but it’s like piling firewood on your stove then opening the door and letting all the heat out of your house. You might stay warm for a bit, but you run out of heat a lot faster… and then you get cold.
The Metolius Arm
I continued to “try hard” as we completed the Deschutes arm and passed “The Wedge” for the second time. The water going north toward the Metolius is very deep and had very warm and very cold pockets as speed boats and jet skis whizzed passed, stirring the water with their wake. It’s also one of my favorite spots for scenery and looks like this:
I remember requesting some ibuprofen at this point, but feeling like whenever we stopped for a feed, I was in a cold pocket and didn’t want to linger while fumbling with the pill bottle. Other swimmers, like Sarah Thomas, take their ibuprofen in liquid form, dissolved in their drinks. I don’t really know why I haven’t tried this before, but I will before my next big swim.
By the time we reached the Metolius Arm, at around the seven hour mark, I was feeling chilly. I wish I had backed off then, but instead I kept pushing the pace and possibly pushing heat out the door with it. I took the ibuprofen and switched to a mix of chocolate and coffee, a choice I was vaguely aware may further the issue of vasodilation. I remember thinking I didn’t really care, I just wanted to continue to hammer on at a hard pace to “stay warm”. I just had that in my head.
So, onward I went, counting strokes, counting feeds, counting hours. Eventually, the island came into view. It was cloudy by then, but you could make out Mt. Jefferson behind it in what must be a stunning view on a sunny day. Prior to attempting the whole route, I had done each section multiple times, except this one. I had never been all the way to the island and I was really interested to see it. I also didn’t know if the water would be warmer or colder there. On a feed, Dan pointed out that the island was really just a 1/2 mile ahead, “like swimming to the mailbox,” he said. We live in the country, so the mailbox is a short walk away. A headwind had picked up at that point, but wasn’t too bad. I knew if I could get around the island loop, I’d have a nice tailwind helping me get home. I actually remember liking the headwind because it was making me try harder, which I still thought was helping me stay warm. It amazes me how much more comfortable I am with the sensation of effort and pain than I am with cold. But I have been told by multiple people and read multiple forum posts stating that getting comfortable with being cold takes years.
The view approaching Chinook Island from the east.
Sometimes people ask me what I’m thinking about during these things. At this point, one thought that helped me is reminding myself that other people do these things too. It made me feel not alone and not crazy and like the project was doable. I reminded myself that people run 100 miles and there are even a few people who have swum 100 miles! The thought really helped me just keep swimming and know that I would be ok.
Dan started asking me on each feed if I was ok. I kept saying, “I’m having a hard time”, by which I meant that I was uncomfortable, but doing fine, and he took to mean he should start considering pulling me. At one point he said, “do you want us to pull you?”
“What? No!” I replied, confused. Why would I want to get pulled? I was mostly super concerned I wouldn’t be able to put up with the discomfort or “something” would happen making it impossible to finish. I do remember guiltily thinking it’d be nice if it started thundering or we encountered a mat of blue-green algae, causing me to have to end the swim against my will. It’s the first time I’ve had thoughts like that on a swim, so I must’ve been hurting.
On the way back, maybe halfway between the island and the confluence of the Metolius and Deschutes, my shoulder suddenly screamed at me for a few strokes. This is something that happened to me once before, during the Apache Lake Swim at SCAR. It’s like a muscle is cramping and pinching a nerve. It’s an intense, sharp pain that happens during the power part of my stroke. I knew from Apache, that if I could rest it, it would go away and I’d be able to swim normally again. So I swam with just my left arm for awhile, then with my right arm closed into a fist to limit how much power would go to that arm. When that didn’t work, I swam backstroke for most of a 20 minute feed cycle, which only helped somewhat. I’m fortunate in that my backstroke is almost as fast as my freestyle. Backstroke was my best stroke when I was a competitive swimmer and it’s served me well in marathon swimming as another option at times like this. I finished up with some breaststroke and then tentatively tried some normal freestyle again. The pain was gone! I continued on with 20 strokes breast and 80 stroke cycles free for about ten minutes just to make sure, and by then I was almost back to the confluence.
The funny thing is that while my shoulder was messed up, I wasn’t able to “try hard”, and it actually felt warmer than before. Another clue for me to ponder over as I try to figure this temperature thing out.
Here we are approaching the corner, about to turn south back into the main channel of the lake.
As I swam south toward the marina, down a stretch of the lake I had been through many times before, I knew I could finish. I was pretty happy about it and just wanted to get there. When we reached the marina, Mary Louise and Lauren parked the Sweetwater in her slip and raced ahead of me down the dock to the spot I had entered the water, while I swam nice and easy through the marina. My three, awesome crew members stood encouragingly by the side of the water while I carefully climbed out next to some kayaks parked there, on a very slippery rock. They stopped the clock when my feet cleared the water, noting the official finish time, and I was done! They grabbed my dry bag from the boat and Dan helped me get dry and warm quickly while I did some shivering and said things like, “that was so hard” and “I can’t believe I just did that”.
The last few strokes…
We decided it would be a good idea for us to walk slowly uphill to the parking lot where the truck was, so that we didn’t just stop moving suddenly. When we arrived, we realized a woman had been walking along behind us, listening to our conversation.
“Is there a reason why you did that?” she asked, her tone almost indignant, with a strong edge of judgement. Startled, I glanced behind me. I find it incredibly difficult to talk to people I don’t know after long swims. I’m getting better at it, but I’ve been known to blatantly ignore comments from strangers, which I sometimes feel bad about later. Usually Dan functions as a PR person for me at these points. But this time, I just sighed and looked ahead as we reached the truck.
“So many reasons,” I said. “So many reasons.”
“Yeah, there are a lot of different reasons,” Dan said to the lady.
“Oh ok,” said the lady. “So probably for a lot of reasons then”.
I got in the truck and sat down. “That was so hard,” I repeated to Dan as we sat there. And this brings me back, full circle, to the Marathon Swimmers Federation, Documented Swims, Long Swims Database and the forum. I don’t need the lady in the parking lot to understand or even know what I did there that day. But I’m not alone. Other people do this too. Other people who can understand what it’s like and why. And that’s the point of doing this swim the way I did, rather than as my own private project.
“Most of us don’t strive for recognition or publicity. We just want to be able to say “I did something great today” to the few friends who understand what that means.”
The context of her post is about integrity, why we stick to a rigid set of rules and why documentation is necessary for this sport. It’s so we can connect ourselves to each other–the marathon swimmers of not only the present, but also the past and the future, to the other people who are doing similar things. To the “few friends who will understand what that means”. When it gets diluted by different equipment or vastly different rules, it takes away from the hard-earned understanding between two marathon swimmers that can only come from the experience itself.
So it was a long, hard swim for me and I’m very proud of that, but I’m happiest that I decided to do this in a way that I can make this connection and be a part of something bigger than myself.
The water started out colder than I anticipated, but warmed up a few miles in. I was “self-supporting”, which meant I was swimming alone, with no kayaker to throw me water bottles, help me navigate or provide a friendly face along side me. Instead, I was towing “infinit” (my sports drink) in a “hydration bladder” behind me in an aesthetically displeasing, enormous, orange inflatable buoy. I left the hose for the hydration bladder trailing out the opening of the buoy so I could stop and take a drink without a lot of fumbling with the buoy. In addition to the two liter bladder, I had included two one liter “soft” water bottles. So, I had four liters of liquid in total. I didn’t know how long I’d be out. I had long ago stopped counting miles, switching to counting hours instead, so it didn’t matter to me if the buoy slowed me down. The thing is so bright and absurdly huge that boats can see me a long way off, the other main advantage beyond bringing consumables with you. Here, take a look–this is from a different swim, but you can see what I mean. (hydroflask in background for scale)
I got into the water from the swimming dock at the campground. I’d swum here before, but I was hoping to venture further up the lake than I had in the past. Google earth had displayed some interesting geological features I wanted to check out.
My first thought in getting in was that it was rather chilly. Maybe I won’t go all the way up the lake, but just stay within an hour of the dock (and swim back and forth). However, after swimming for an hour, I had gotten used to the water and it was already a degree or two warmer up there. I can keep going, it’s warmer here, I thought. So I kept going. I swam for another hour, uplake, with the wind pushing me onward. After a couple miles, the lake, (which is really just a reservoir) becomes the Deschutes River and continues upstream all the way to the Round Butte Dam, where water flows from Lake Billy Chinook. So I kept swimming up the Deschutes, thinking someday, maybe not today, I’d like to swim all the way to the dam and back.
Lake Simtustus–swimming dock at the campground.
It was even warmer two hours in. I was hoping for a five hour, as I am into “back-to-back-to back” training blocks these days. I had gone three hours Thursday in my tether pool (aka KB Lake), four hours Friday at Suttle lake and five hours Saturday at Elk Lake. Now it was Sunday and I was two hours from my car in the middle of nowhere, by myself. If I turned back now, I would have only four hours. Plus, I wondered what was ahead.
I noticed a sign attached to a lonely, wooden dock on the west side of the lake. It was tiny. I thought about seeing what it would say. But I also remembered that you are not allowed to land on the west side of the river, which is the border for the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. When the lake was formed in 1958 with the construction of Pelton Dam, The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs named it after Pipsher Simtustus, who scouted for the U.S. Army from 1867-1868. More history here.
I had been sticking to swimming on the east side, on the off chance I needed to exit the water. I stopped swimming to look around, I realized suddenly I was nowhere near the east side of the river. The distant bank was actually quite far away. While allowing my mind to wander, my body had drifted into the middle of the river, where an occasional fishing or pontoon boat would cruise by. In fact, there was one such boat headed toward me, distant, but still distinguishable. I started swimming hard, adrenaline up, although I knew my hideously huge buoy would keep me visible. As I swam, I counted 100 stroke cycles to keep my mind off the boat coming. Then, I was at the east bank of the river again and the boat cruised by, its pilot watching me curiously from afar, or so I imagined. I was miles from the parking lot at this point, which I imagine seems odd to your average angler.
I continued on at a relaxed pace, passing a place labeled “Indian Park” on google maps, on the west side of the river. Empty picnic tables sat among dry, brown grass, the scenery suddenly appearing remote and barren.
Upon rounding a point, I could see a gigantic gravel cliff up ahead and thought it would be nice to check out. Looking at my watch, it seemed I might have just enough time. The water was very comfortable at that point. However, I was, for some reason quite anxious. Something was telling me, “you should turn around. You shouldn’t be here”. I thought it was probably just the voice in my head and effortfully tried to ignore it. It was so desolate out there. Every so often a boat would cruise by, far away now, in the middle of the river. “What if they’re rapists and they come and harass you,” said the voice. Sometimes, something would catch the corner of my eye, but when I’d look, it wasn’t there. That’s not all that unusual for me while swimming, but it freaked me out more than usual. I’ll just go to that tree, I said to myself. Once I got to the tree, I’ll just go to that rock. Then I got to the rock. It’s a big rock, did you say you were going to swim to it, or past it? You really should do what you say you’re going to do. Don’t be a liar. Also, if you keep going something bad is going to happen, but also don’t be a liar, go all the way past the rock. I don’t think anything bad will happen to me, it’s just a river with some gravel cliffs and no one around. I can keep swimming. After getting to the end of the large rock. I stopped and drank some infinit out of one of the soft bottles. I noticed that water had gotten in my buoy, like, a lot of water. I had to pour it back out into the lake, while keeping the water bottles in. My electronic car key was in a dry case inside a dry bag inside the buoy. What if you get back and your car won’t open? said the voice. What if what if what if, I said back to it. I wanted to go to the cliffs. What was wrong? Nothing. The water felt good, I wasn’t tired. Nothing was wrong.
Gravel cliffs as seen from google earth, most likely a quarry, but no information available.
I did some strokes using “head up breastroke”, looking around and trying to figure out why I was so nervous. This is really odd. But I really just can’t go any further. So that was it, I turned around and started to swim back. No sooner had I gone a few strokes, when the wind began to gust around me, spraying water at my face with every stroke. I looked at a tree on the side of the bank. All it’s branches were bent the direction I wasn’t trying to go. For a moment, I wondered if I would be able to get back or if the wind current would be too strong. I kept my eyes on the shore and noted as I passed things. I knew I had enough drink to have me swimming for at least six hours, probably a lot more. So as long as I’m making progress, it doesn’t matter if I’m slow, I thought to myself. The wind howled in reply, pushing back on my arms during the part of the stroke when they are out of the water.
Little by little, I made some progress upwind and after awhile, it gave up on harassing me for a bit, only to resume again later. Despite all that, I could tell I was making progress and I noticed I was less anxious heading back than I was headed out. I made sure not to try too hard, so I could save my energy for the cooler water at the end. The water temperature was getting cooler and cooler as I progressed back. I speculated this was on account of the put-in being quite close to the next dam, so I imagine the water could be deeper there. Finally, I reached a spot I recognized as being about an hour away from the dock, and then another about 30 mins away. Since I had planned a 5 hour swim and I had turned back at 2.25 hrs, I swam into an inlet I have been to many times. The water was warmer there so I did some easy swimming, drank some drink and floated awhile until my teeth started to chatter. I alternated hard and easy for the last 30 minutes and felt pretty strong, not too cold. And then there they were, the orange buoys marking the dock.
The buoys are like a little fence, marking the small “swimming area”. I swam over the cable connecting the buoys, pulling my own buoy behind and over as well. Looking at my watch, having swum 5 hours and one minute, I clutched the metal swimming ladder and climbed slowly out. I reminded myself to use hand sanitizer upon returning to the car on account of touching a shared surface, even though no one else appeared to be swimming that day. I pulled an ear plug out of my ear to the sound of applause coming from the deck of the small cafe and country store associated with the campground. So awkward. I looked to see a scattering of people, staring at me and indeed, clapping their hands and yelling “woohoos”. Bemused, I wondered if they were some of the people who had passed me upriver on pontoon boats, or just random people who thought it’d be fun to yell a good “woohoo” at someone. In any case, I gave them all a grimace and a thumbs up and stiffly walked back to my car. There, I changed out of my suit and sat shivering, drinking still-hot chocolate from a thermos and wondering about the whole adventure.